BEIRUT (Reuters) – Protesters poured back onto streets and squares across Lebanon on Saturday, despite army efforts to unblock roads, with no end in sight to a crisis that has crippled the country for 10 days and kept banks closed.
Army and security commanders met to plan ways to re-open main arteries to get traffic flowing again while “safeguarding the safety of protesters”, the military said in a statement. But people have closed routes with barriers, sit-ins and mass gatherings demanding the government resign.
Lebanon has been swept by 10 days of protests against a political class accused of corruption, mismanagement of state finances and pushing the country toward an economic collapse unseen since the 1975-90 civil war.
Banks, schools, and many businesses have shut their doors.
“We won’t leave the streets because this is the only card that people can pressure with,” Yehya al-Tannir, an actor protesting at a makeshift barricade on a main bridge in the capital Beirut. “We won’t leave until our demands are met.”
As night fell on Saturday, the first day of the weekend, protesters flooded streets across the country amid patriotic music, Lebanese flags and protest banners.
Troops and riot police deployed to main roads across Lebanon. Forces re-opened some roads for a few hours on Saturday morning before people gathered once again.
Near the northern city of Tripoli, the Lebanese army said it fired into the air during a disturbance with protesters. Five soldiers and a number of civilians were injured, it said.
On a main bridge in Beirut, riot police scuffled with protesters who were sitting on the ground to keep it closed.
Protesters resisted efforts earlier this week to open some roads, including along a main south-north highway.
Banks will stay closed until life returns to normal and will pay month-end salaries through ATMs, the Association of Banks in Lebanon has said.
It has held crisis meetings in recent days amid growing fears that a rush on the banks when they reopen could deplete dwindling foreign currency deposits.
The protests have continued to grip Lebanon despite the government announcing an emergency reform package this week that failed to defuse anger. It has also yet to reassure foreign donors to unlock the billions in badly needed aid they have pledged.
Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of government debt as a share of economic output.
The size and geographic reach of the protests have been extraordinary in a country where political movements have long been divided along sectarian lines and struggle to draw nationwide appeal.
In the southern coastal city of Saida, some shops opened their doors after days of closure.
“Shopkeepers are opening up to see if they can get things moving. The end of the month is near, people have rents to pay,” said protester Hoda Hafez. “But in the end, they will all take part and come down to the (protest) square.”
The leader of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement, backed by Iran, warned on Friday against a power vacuum and urged followers to stay away from the protests after they confronted demonstrators in central Beirut.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Lisa Barrington, Issam Abdallah, Laila Bassam, and Reuters TV; Writing by Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alex Richardson and Christina Fincher)