Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, has announced his resignation, in a move set to spark more uncertainty in a country paralysed by ongoing political crises and a nationwide protest movement that has risen up in response.
Hariri’s announcement came several hours after large groups of youths overran protest sites in downtown Beirut, ransacking tents and stalls set up by thousands of demonstrators who for the past 13 days have demanded an overhaul of the ruling class and an end to rampant corruption.
The embattled leader said he intended to make a “positive shock” by quitting, claiming that doing so served “the country’s dignity and safety”. Over the past fortnight he has tabled reforms, including the abolishment of several cabinet positions, and some cuts to spending, but the moves have fallen short of the structural changes demanded by combustible street protests across the country.
The stamina of the demonstrators has left politicians scrambling unsuccessfully for responses and exposed the depth of feeling in Lebanon, where an imminent economic collapse could cripple civic life and the country’s banking system.
The depth of the crisis and lack of political solutions has galvanised Lebanese from all political blocs and walks of life, leading to a movement that shows little sign of slowing down even after the main protest site was ransacked by hundreds of men on Thursday.
The assault was blamed by demonstrators on two factions, Hezbollah and Amal, the political leaders of which do not support a change in government. The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – the most powerful figure in Lebanon despite not holding an official position – has warned of widespread chaos if protests were allowed to continue.
Hariri’s supporters spent much of Tuesday trying to talk him out of quitting, fearing even deeper instability in Lebanon, where political uncertainty and extreme levels of government debt have caused widespread alarm in recent months and spilled over into mass demonstrations, the scale of which had not been seen for more than a decade.
“I know for sure that the main target is the top of the system,” said Ali Dirani, a 33-year-old protester. “I don’t expect a domino effect, what I expect is that Hariri is expendable for the confessional regime that we’re trying to topple. What people should focus on now is that we need to find an alternative. Our problem is not with Hariri personally, or even his government, we have a problem that is rooted in the system of decision making and the relationship between citizen and state.”
Another protester, 45-year-old Patricia Zogheib, said: “We should celebrate, the first step of success. Not complete success yet. But it must be acknowledged. May we wake up tomorrow with more realistic plans to go forward.”
Camille Abusleiman, who was labour minister until he resigned earlier this month, said: “We had proposed that the PM resign alongside the ministers representing the Lebanese Forces (a political bloc). Although late, we welcome his resignation and hope he will go through with it, as the people of Lebanon have clearly lost confidence in this government.”
Rose, 26, was protesting in central Beirut when she heard that Hariri had gone. “We just want to say that this is the first out of many,” she said. “We’re waiting for the others to show some dignity. But I doubt they have it.”
Additional reporting by Nadia al-Faour