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BEIRUT – Nationwide protests paralyzed Lebanon on Friday as demonstrators blocked major roads in a second day of rallies against the government's handling of a severe economic crisis and the entire country's political class.
The protests were the largest since 2015 and could further destabilize a country whose economy is already on the verge of collapse and with one of the highest debt loads in the world.
The protests could plunge Lebanon into a political crisis with unpredictable repercussions for the economy, which has been in steady decline for the past few years. Some of the protesters said they would stay in the streets until the government resigns.
Time and again, the protesters shouted "Revolution!" and "The people want to bring down the regime," echoing a refrain chanted by demonstrators during Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011.
"We are here today to ask for our rights. The country is corrupt, the garbage is all over the streets and we are fed up with all this," said Loris Obeid, a protester in downtown Beirut.
Schools, banks and businesses shut down as the protests escalated and widened in scope to reach almost every city and province. Hundreds of people burned tires on highways and intersections in suburbs of the capital, Beirut, and in northern and southern cities, sending up clouds of black smoke in scattered protests. The road to Beirut's international airport was blocked by protesters, stranding passengers who in some cases were seen dragging suitcases on foot to reach the airport.
"We are here for the future of our kids. There's no future for us, no jobs at all and this is not acceptable any more. We have shut up for a long time and now it is time to talk," Obeid added.
The tension has been building for months, as the government searched for new ways to levy taxes to manage the country's economic crisis and soaring debt.
The trigger, in the end, was the news Thursday that the government was planning, among other measures, to impose a tax on Whatsapp calls — a decision it later withdrew as people began taking to the streets.
In some cases the demonstrations evolved into riots, as protesters set fire to buildings and smashed window fronts, taking their anger out on politicians they accuse of corruption and decades of mismanagement.
Two Syrian workers died Thursday when they were trapped in a shop that was set on fire by rioters. Dozens of people were injured.
Some protesters threw stones, shoes and water bottles at security forces and scuffled with police. Security forces said at least 60 of its members were injured in the clashes. Protesters were also injured.
The government is discussing the 2020 budget, and new taxes have been proposed, including on tobacco, gasoline and some social media communication software such as WhatsApp.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri canceled a cabinet meeting scheduled for Friday to resume discussions. He was expected to address the nation later in the day.
Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan insisted Hariri would not resign, saying that could spark a national crisis more dangerous than the current economic crisis.
Years of regional turmoil — worsened by an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011 — are catching up with Lebanon. The small Arab country on the Mediterranean has the third-highest debt level in the world, currently standing at about $86 billion, or 150% of its gross domestic product.
International donors have been demanding that Lebanon implement economic changes in order to get loans and grants pledged at the CEDRE economic conference in Paris in April 2018. International donors pledged $11 billion for Lebanon but they sought to ensure the money is well spent in the corruption-plagued country.
Despite tens of billions of dollars spent since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon still has crumbling infrastructure including daily electricity cuts, trash piles in the streets and often sporadic, limited water supplies from the state-owned water company.
Associated Press writers Fadi Tawil, Hassan Ammar and Bassam Hatoum in Beirut contributed reporting.