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Protesters Continue To Fill Streets Of Lebanon, United By Their Calls For Change

Oct 22, 2019

For days, people have gathered in the central squares of cities across Lebanon. They've chanted, they've sung, they've carried cheeky signs.

What do they want? Wholesale change in their political system. When do they want it? Now.

The government took notice, and announced a raft of changes: No new taxes. Halving government officials' salaries. Privatizing the telecom industry because cellphone plans in the county are so expensive. Fast-tracking licenses for new power plants, as there are daily electricity cuts in most Lebanese cities.

If the government had hoped that the plans they announced would get the protesters to go home, it didn't work. Instead, protesters continue to demand that Prime Minister Saad Hariri resign.

"They just go up now on TV and give a speech just to shut us up," said 22-year-old Sophie Akkouri. While her friends are moving abroad for better opportunities, she's protesting in Beirut because she wants change in her own country. "We're not going. We're going to stay here until they all resign."

Two demonstrators hold up walking canes in a protest in the southern city of Sidon on Monday.
Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP via Getty Images

The demonstrations began as a vehement response to the government's new tax proposals, including one on phone calls that take place over WhatsApp. But the public pressure has grown into an impassioned censure of Hariri's government itself.

These are the largest demonstrations in the country since 2005, when Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – Saad's father — was assassinated in a car bombing in Beirut. That triggered street protests against the Syrian military presence in the country, demonstrations known as the Cedar Revolution. Syria subsequently withdrew its forces from Lebanon.

Lebanon's political system allocates power among the country's three largest religious communities — Christian, Sunni and Shia. The system has been credited with keeping the country fairly peaceful since 1990, but it's now criticized as spawning corruption and enshrining a ruling elite.

The protests have the feeling of a carnival, and they're uniting the country across sectarian divides, a sensation new to many of those participating.

Protesters wave the flag of Lebanon during demonstrations in downtown Beirut on Monday.
Anwar Amro / AFP via Getty Images

"I feel euphoric," said Mohammed Ballaghi, 33. "For the first time, I see the people of my country standing united together against this tyranny. I'm very proud to say I'm Lebanese because the Lebanese people are not scared anymore. They are not sectarian pieces of [expletive] anymore."

The protests have been peaceful so far, but there are concerns they could turn violent, especially in areas that are Hezbollah strongholds. And there's a worry that Lebanon, a country that's shown relative stability in the Middle East in recent years, could fall into chaos.

NPR International Correspondent Daniel Estrin contributed to this report from Beirut.

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