Middle East

Lebanon protests: Huge crowds on streets as government acts

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Media captionFrom flag waving and calls for revolution, watch how anti-government protests have unfolded in Lebanon

Lebanon's government has approved a package of economic reforms as it attempts to quell the biggest protests to sweep the country in over a decade.

Measures include steps to cut Lebanon's huge deficit, slashing politicians' salaries by half and giving financial help to families in poverty.

In a televised address, PM Saad Hariri said the protesters had been heard.

It comes as demonstrators took part in a fifth day of protests and widespread strikes.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets, angry at corruption and austerity measures.

The Lebanese economy is struggling with low growth and high debt, and a deteriorating infrastructure has made power cuts and piles of uncollected rubbish part of daily life.

What's the latest?

The Lebanese cabinet passed the raft of measures at an emergency meeting on Monday. Mr Hariri had hinted at resigning if the package was not approved.

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Image caption Lebanese President Michel Aoun (R) chaired a cabinet meeting on Monday

The prime minister appeared on television immediately afterwards, acknowledging protesters' grievances.

"These decisions are not designed as a trade-off," he said, "They are not to ask you to stop expressing your anger. That is your decision to make."

"Your movement is what led to these decisions that you see today," he added.

Meanwhile, protesters blocked main roads in central Beirut and held fresh demonstrations. Many schools, banks and universities were closed.

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Image caption People blocked main roads in Beirut ahead of the cabinet meeting

" Lebanon is getting ruined more and more, day after day because of all the politicians," Sara, a 17-year-old protester, told the BBC.

"That's why the Lebanese are standing hand in hand against the corruption and against the bad economical state. This revolution is the key to a better Lebanon."

Why are people protesting?

The demonstrations began on Thursday, when a proposed $6 (£4.60) monthly tax on WhatsApp voice calls was announced.

The tax was scrapped, but the unrest escalated and demonstrators turned their focus to wider grievances with the government, including widespread corruption, economic mismanagement and poor public services.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands people gathered in in the capital and other cities for the biggest demonstrations seen in Lebanon since 2005.

Lebanon's economic situation has worsened in recent weeks, with the local currency losing value against the US dollar for the first time in two decades.

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Image caption Tens of thousands of people gathered in downtown Beirut on Sunday

The Lebanese pound has been pegged at 1,500 to the dollar since 1997, but a shortage of dollars at local banks has led to the black market exchange rate rising to about 1,650.

Lebanon has one of the world's highest levels of public debt. At $86bn, it is equivalent to more than 150% of gross domestic product (GDP).

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Image caption Before Monday's protests people helped clear up rubbish left on the streets

The country's economy has also stagnated. Real GDP growth was only 0.2% in 2018 and is estimated to be -0.2% in 2019, according to the World Bank.

Last year, international donors pledged $11bn of aid and loans to boost Lebanon's economy. In return, the government committed to implement reforms that would help reduce its debt.

Lebanon's public infrastructure, which was already stretched before more than one million refugees arrived from neighbouring Syria, is also ailing. Electricity and water supplies are disrupted frequently and rubbish often piles up on the streets.

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Media captionLebanon protesters: "We can make a change"

Observers say one of the striking features of the protests has been how demonstrators have remained above the sectarian divides that have caused so much conflict in the past.

Lebanon has long had a political system designed to balance power between the country's main religious groups.

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