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Lebanon’s Prime Minister Stepping Down


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon said on Tuesday that he and his cabinet would resign, bowing to one basic demand of the enormous antigovernment protests that have consumed the country and suspended daily life for nearly two weeks.

“I’m at a dead end,” Mr. Hariri said in a televised speech. “Jobs come and go, but what’s important is the country, no one’s bigger than the nation,” he added, echoing his father, Rafik Hariri, the prime minister who was assassinated in 2005.

But the resignations are unlikely to fully satisfy the protesters, whose signature chant — “All of them means all of them” — encapsulates their fury at the entire political class.

The future of Mr. Hariri, widely regarded as a Western-friendly leader, is now unclear. President Michel Aoun must convene a committee to replace the government. Theoretically at least, it could exclude the political elite the protesters blame for the dysfunction and sectarian stalemate that have paralyzed Lebanon for decades.

But, given how deeply corruption and questionable economic policies have burrowed into the country’s foundations over the years, it is unclear if the next government can overcome past missteps or resolve the fiscal crisis that is threatening to capsize the banking system and shred ordinary wallets.

The next government will also be hard-pressed to address the underlying problem that the protests are ultimately targeting: Lebanon’s deadlocked political system, under which leaders of the country’s 18 officially recognized religious groups divide power and state funds for themselves and their followers at the expense of the country as a whole. As a result, Lebanon cannot consistently provide basic services such as 24-hour electricity, tap water or garbage disposal.

“Corruption is everywhere and in everything. Corruption is when you look at the rivers, just a black smelly sewer. Corruption is 220 kilometers of shores where you cannot swim because of pollution,” said Paula Yacoubian, the only member of Parliament who does not belong to a political party. “I mean, corruption is obvious to the eyes, to the nose, to all senses.”

Years’ worth of barely suppressed rage over this state of affairs detonated on Oct. 17, when the government announced a tax on calls made over popular, free internet-based messaging services including WhatsApp.

Over the next several days, protests mushroomed from dozens of people into the hundreds of thousands, propelling as much as a quarter of the Lebanese population — including people of all ages and sectarian stripes — into streets across the country. Banks, schools and some offices have been closed ever since as protesters have seized and blocked major roads, defying attempts by the Lebanese army to reopen them.

Within a few days, Mr. Hariri tried placating the protesters with a package of fiscal reforms meant to head off economic catastrophe, but it was taken as little more than confirmation that the politicians had the means, but not the will, to clean up their act all along.

Subsequent speeches by the country’s other major political figures, including President Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah — the leader of Hezbollah, the political party and militia — were met with disgust by most.

But not by all.

Before long, a counterprotest began to brew. While the protests still include members of all religious sects, supporters of Mr. Aoun, a Christian, have staged competing protests, and riot police officers have intervened repeatedly to separate supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, another Shiite party, from fighting with protesters. The most recent clash occurred in downtown Beirut hours before Mr. Hariri’s speech on Tuesday.

Rumors have spread that foreign countries had instigated the demonstrations, and Mr. Nasrallah brought similar allegations into the open in a speech a few days ago.

It was unclear how Mr. Aoun, Mr. Nasrallah and other political leaders would respond on Tuesday. Their parties are all represented in Mr. Hariri’s national unity government, which formed in January after nine months of deadlock.

Rana Tabbara contributed reporting from Beirut.


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