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Lebanese keep up protests despite emergency measures

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Lebanese protesters kept the country on lockdown Tuesday as they gathered for a sixth consecutive day demanding new leaders despite the government's adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan.

[BEIRUT] Lebanese protesters kept the country on lockdown Tuesday as they gathered for a sixth consecutive day demanding new leaders despite the government's adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan.

Demonstrations initially sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other messaging apps have grown into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilisation against the political class.

Rallies have spread to all major cities and into Lebanon's vast diaspora.

The Cabinet was spurred into passing wide-ranging economic reforms on Monday but the move failed to win over protesters, who now seem bent on removing the entire political elite, which they see as corrupt.

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In Beirut, volunteers donned gloves and cleaned up streets after euphoric crowds partied deep into the night Monday, dancing to impromptu concerts.

Among them, Hussein al-Aliya, a 35-year-old bus driver, was sweeping away rubbish after a night of protests.

"If it took just three days to approve (the reforms), why haven't they done so for the past 30 years?" he asked.

"We've come down to the street from all religious sects to bring the whole of the state down," said the young man from the Shiite stronghold of southern Beirut.

"The lawmakers and ministers are all thieves and the governor of the central bank is covering up for them," he said.

But "there are young women and men studying in the universities who could take on jobs in parliament and government."

Among the measures announced by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday were a 2020 budget meant to bring the deficit down to 0.6 per cent of GDP, no new taxes, a privatisation programme and measures to support the underprivileged.

It was also to slash by half the salaries of current and former lawmakers and ministers.

With schools and banks closed since last week, a couple of dozen demonstrators chanted on in front of the central bank despite Monday's announcement.

"Down with the rule of the central bank. We won't pay the taxes. Let the banks pay them," they intoned.

Heiko Wimmen, analyst with the International Crisis group, said it appeared Monday's measures were not enough.

"These mostly technical solutions may put the country on a sounder fiscal footing, but they appear inadequate to the challenge of the protests, which now demand broader, systemic change," he said.

The country's main parties, including those of President Michel Aoun and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, have warned against the impact of a government vacuum and supported the reform package.

Mr Hariri met top ambassadors in Beirut on Tuesday, hoping to restore confidence that Lebanon can handle its ballooning debt and unlock a huge aid package.

"We believe after the announcement of the decisions of the Cabinet yesterday, that we're going to get very positive reactions from them," senior government adviser Nadim Munla told reporters.

Lebanon's economy has been sliding closer to the abyss in recent months, with public debt soaring past 150 per cent of GDP and ratings agencies grading Lebanese sovereign bonds as "junk".

Fears of a default have compounded the worries of Lebanese citizens exasperated by the poor quality of public services.

Residents typically suffer daily electricity shortages and unclean water.

"This protest movement is the only chance the people have," said Mounir Malaaeb, an elderly man from the southern city of Tyre who came to the capital to join the rallies.

"If we give the government another chance we would be crazy. We have been giving them chances since the 1990s."

On Tuesday morning, the Lebanese army was trying to reopen a number of major roads that have been blocked by angry demonstrators for days, the National News Agency said.

It remained unclear how long protests will last and whether they will maintain their current size, which ranged from thousands to tens of thousands across the country, according to estimates.

Given the size of the gatherings, the six-day-old mobilisation has been remarkably incident free, with armies of volunteers providing water to protesters and organising first aid tents.

After the sun sets, focused protests evolve into an open-air party with loud speakers blasting songs as demonstrators cook food on grills, play cards or smoke from a hookah pipe.

Mr Hariri seemed aware that the measures he announced would not quench the people's thirst for change, saying on Monday that the aim of the economic reform plan was not simply to stop people from taking to the streets.

Lebanon fought a devastating 15-year civil war until 1990 and many of the country's politicians were warlords fighting along sectarian lines.

Outside of Lebanon, expats in Europe, the US and Africa staged sit-ins and demonstrations in solidarity.

They gathered in Paris, Switzerland, Cyprus and in several parts of the United States, where they waved Lebanese flags and chortled anti-government slogans.

AFP