November 25, 2019 / 4:03 PM / 16 days ago

Lebanon business group urges general strike to push for end to crisis

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A major Lebanese business group called on Monday for a three-day general strike to press divided politicians to form a government and end a crisis that has brought the economy to a standstill.

A protester holds a Lebanese flag at a roadblock during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Beirut, Lebanon November 25, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Lebanon has faced five weeks of protests, fueled by anger at corruption among sectarian politicians who have governed for decades. Demonstrators want to see the entire ruling class gone from power.

Despite the unprecedented protests, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Oct. 29 and exacerbated the economic crisis, deeply divided politicians have yet to agree on a new government.

The Lebanese Economic Bodies group, which includes industrialists and bankers, called for the closure of private institutions from Thursday to Saturday to push major parties to form a new government and avert further economic damage.

“The political forces have not assumed their national responsibilities and have not shown the seriousness necessary to produce solutions to the current crisis,” it said.

Banks reopened last week after mostly being shut since unrest began on Oct. 17. Fearing capital flight and amid a hard currency shortage, commercial banks have placed tight restrictions on withdrawals and transfers abroad.

It was not clear if any banks would heed the strike call.

The hard currency shortage has spawned a black market where the price for dollars has surged since the start of unrest, reaching over 2,000 pounds to the dollar on Monday, about a third higher than the pegged rate of 1,507.5.

In its statement, the Economic Bodies group said its “escalation” would continue until a new government was formed, with further steps to be announced.

HIGHWAY CLASHES

The strike call came hours after clashes on a Beirut roadway between supporters of Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal and anti-government protesters, raising the specter of violence in protests that have been overwhelmingly peaceful.

Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal have sought to reopen roads and get protesters to go home.

Adding to tensions, two people were killed when their car slammed into a traffic barrier and burst into flames on a coastal road in the early hours of Monday, security sources said.

The crash sparked debate on social media about whether protest tactics, which have often included road blockades, had gone too far, although it was not immediately clear who set up the barrier that caused the accident.

A video on social media apparently taken from a traffic camera showed a car smashing through a metal barricade in the center of the road and lighting on fire. Reuters could not independently verify the video.

Hezbollah blamed protesters, saying the accident was the result of attacks by groups targeting roads. In a statement, it called the tactics “a threat to civil peace and social stability.”

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Hezbollah and Amal were both represented in the coalition government led by Hariri. The heavily armed Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, had opposed his resignation.

In a statement, Lebanon’s Supreme Islamic Shiite Council urged security forces to take stronger actions to protect citizens and freedom of movement. Lebanon’s army has sought to keep roads open but has pledged to use peaceful means.

The family of the victims called on authorities to launch an investigation and find those responsible for blocking the roads, according to a statement on state news agency NNA.

Reporting by Laila Bassam, Eric Knecht and Dala Osseiran; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne

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