October 23, 2019 / 10:23 AM / 19 days ago

Facing protests, Lebanese leaders mull reshuffle - sources

BEIRUT/SIDON (Reuters) - Lebanese leaders are discussing a possible government reshuffle, sources said on Wednesday, to defuse unprecedented protests against the political elite that have paralysed the country for a week.

Demonstrators hold Lebanese flags during an anti-government protest in the city of Sidon, Lebanon October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Lebanon’s highest Christian Maronite authority and a prominent Druze politician threw their weight behind the groundswell for change, calling for qualified technocrats to be included in any government shake-up.

With a population of 6 million people including around 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has been swept by protests against politicians blamed for corruption and waste in a state mired in debt and economic crisis.

Flag-waving protesters kept roads blocked with vehicles and makeshift barricades for a seventh day on Wednesday. Banks have been closed since Friday and will remain shut on Thursday, the banking association said. Schools are also closed.

Soldiers scuffled with demonstrators as they struggled to unblock main roads.

“We’re staying in the streets until the looted public funds are restored, until the government falls,” said Heba Haidar, protesting at a makeshift barricade of empty trash containers and steel rods in Beirut.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government announced an emergency reform package on Monday, to try to assuage public anger and steer the state away from a looming financial crisis.

Hariri’s government, which took office at the start of the year, groups nearly all of the main parties in a sectarian power-sharing system.

The idea of a reshuffle “is being discussed widely among politicians in the country and we might get there if the protests remain in the street in the coming days”, a senior political source said.

Another political source said the idea was “starting to mature”. “The street is imposing its rhythm on the political class,” he added.

A third political source, asked about a reshuffle, said: “Everything is being discussed in a calm manner.”

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity as the consultations have not been made public.

“THE PEOPLE’S DEMANDS”

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, speaking alongside other top church leaders, said the measures announced by Hariri were a “positive first step” but also required replacing current ministers with skilled technocrats.

“We call on the president of the republic ... to immediately begin consultations with the political leadership and the heads of the sects to take the necessary decisions regarding the people’s demands,” he said.

Druze politician Walid Jumblatt said he backed the idea of a reshuffle. “A major reshuffle of the government could satisfy some of the demonstrators’ demands,” he told Reuters.

Lebanon’s unrest is the latest in a flare-up of protests around the world - from Hong Kong and Barcelona to Quito and Santiago - each having its own trigger but sharing some underlying frustrations.

“We need to stay strong,” said Manal Ghanem, a university graduate who works at a coffee shop, as she stood by a barricade in Beirut.

Mohammad Jana, 36, an unemployed chef at a roadblock on a main highway, said future generations were inheriting massive public debt. “They are stealing. The least we can do is civil disobedience,” he said.

Lebanon’s economy, whose mainstays include construction and tourism, has suffered years of low growth due partly to regional turmoil. Capital inflows have ebbed.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of public debt compared to the size of its economy at around 150%.

The financial system is facing strains unseen since the 1975-90 civil war. Hard currency has become hard to obtain at the official exchange rate and a parallel market has emerged.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, said Lebanon could not remain in such chaos and he feared any power vacuum.

The government measures included halving ministers’ salaries and steps towards implementing long-delayed reforms needed to fix the state finances.

Slideshow (15 Images)

Under pressure to reduce the budget deficit, Hariri has said the central bank and commercial banks would contribute 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($3.4 billion) to help plug the gap in 2020, including through an increase in taxes on bank profits.

But Moody’s warned that confidence in the government’s ability to service debt could be further undermined through its plan to force banks to accept a lower interest rate on its debt.

Hariri met Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and a delegation from the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

Additional reporting by Eric Knecht, Tom Perry, Laila Bassam, Suleiman al-Khalidi, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood, Andrew Cawthorne and Deepa Babington

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