Lebanon PM Hariri agrees to reforms amid nationwide protests over economic crisis

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri accused his rivals of obstructing his reform measures. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (REUTERS) - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri agreed on Sunday (Oct 20) to a package of reforms with government partners to ease an economic crisis that has sparked protests aimed at ousting a ruling elite seen as riddled with corruption and cronyism.

Officials told Reuters the agreement was reached as hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets for a fourth day in the biggest show of dissent against the establishment in decades.

A sea of people, some waving Lebanese flags, called for revolution in protests that resembled the 2011 Arab Spring revolts that toppled four presidents.

Mr Hariri, who is leading a coalition government mired by sectarian and political rivalries, gave his feuding government partners a 72-hour deadline last Friday to agree reforms that could ward off crisis, hinting he may otherwise resign.

He accused his rivals of obstructing his reform measures that could unlock US$11 billion (S$15 billion) in Western donor pledges and help avert economic collapse.

The reform decisions require a 50 per cent reduction in salaries of current and former presidents, ministers and MPs, plus cuts in benefits to state institutions and officials.

It also obliges the central bank and private banks to contribute US$3.3 billion to achieve a "near zero deficit" for the 2020 budget.

It also includes a plan to privatise the telecommunications sector and an overhaul of the costly and crumbling electricity sector, which poses one of the biggest strains on the country's depleted finances.

Government sources said Mr Hariri's Cabinet would meet at midday on Monday at the presidential palace to approve the reform package.

The anti-government protests, fuelled by crippling economic conditions and anger at perceived government corruption, have fanned out across the country since last Thursday.

Cheerful, buoyant and hopeful their protests would bring change, people of all ages and religions played patriotic songs and danced in the streets, with some forming human chains and chanting for their leaders to be ousted.

Festival-like scenes dominated the country from the capital Beirut to remote towns, with loudspeakers blaring music as crowds kept pouring into the streets.

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