Protesters back on Beirut streets as leaders debate crisis

BEIRUT (AP) — Protesters were back on the streets of Beirut on Wednesday as senior Lebanese politicians met for talks on ways to break a government deadlock that has sparked the most serious anti-government demonstrations in decades.

A group of activists gathered near the parliament building, which was closed off by security forces, shouting “thieves!” as convoys of politicians drove by and pelting their cars with eggs. Tensions rose ahead of a huge anti-government protest planned for Wednesday night.  

“This dialogue is a joke. They are meeting to see how they can split the cheese,” said Marwan Basha, a 57-year-old engineer taking part in the sit-in near parliament, as riot police stood nearby. On the barbed wire that separates protesters from the building, activists pinned a large banner with the pictures of the 128 members of parliament with Arabic words that read: “You have failed in everything … Go Home.”

Lebanon’s latest crisis was sparked by popular anger over the heaps of trash accumulating in Beirut’s streets after authorities closed the capital’s main landfill on July 17 and failed to provide an alternative.

The protests quickly moved beyond just the trash in the street to target an entire political class that has dominated the country and undermined its growth since the civil war ended in 1990. Lebanon has a confessional power-sharing system that often leads to incessant bickering and cronyism among the country’s politicians.

Thousands of people have taken part in huge demonstrations over the past two weeks, including two that turned violent. Among other things, they are demanding the resignation of the environment minister and new parliament elections, to be followed by presidential elections.

The country has been without a president for over a year, and members of parliament have illegally extended their term twice amid disputes over an election law. So far, the only response to the growing protest movement has been a promise by the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, for high-level talks among the politicians, which began Wednesday.

Berri’s call for dialogue has been backed by the main political leaders, but it was unclear how such talks among the same veteran politicians being vilified by the protesters would help break the deadlock.

The leaders are deeply divided over core issues, such as what a new election law would look like, or whether it should be passed before or after a president is elected. Albert Aswad, a 61-year-old who owns a printing house, bought a package of 30 eggs and 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of tomatoes to downtown Beirut, hurling them at convoys of politicians headed to parliament. He was not too hopeful.

“I don’t think that our demonstrations will lead to change because politicians in this country have no morals,” he said. Prime Minister Tammam Salam urged the politicians meeting Wednesday to make every effort to help end the paralysis and also called for an extraordinary Cabinet meeting later in the day to discuss the issue of garbage collection.

“I hope at the Cabinet meeting today … there will be an immediate solution to rid the country of garbage as a way to propagate trust in the country,” Salam told journalists as he went into the parliament building for the meeting.

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