Security forces lock down Beirut ahead of meeting, protest

Reuters News
|
Posted: Sep 09, 2015 4:22 AM

By John Davison

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese security services locked down central Beirut on Wednesday as politicians gathered to discuss ways out of a political crisis that has paralyzed government and fueled a wave of street protests.

Activists mobilizing against government failures including a waste disposal crisis that has allowed garbage to pile up in Beirut have called protests to coincide with the "national dialogue" called by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.

Prime Minister Tammam Salam, whose unity government has struggled to take even basic decisions, called on politicians to "participate in an active and positive way to make this dialogue successful, to help us out of this aggravated crisis".

He also called an emergency cabinet meeting later on Wednesday to discuss the trash problem he said needed an immediate solution.

The garbage is "putting pressure on the people and stirring the peoples' anger," he said, arriving at parliament for the dialogue. "We share the anger if we cannot reach a cure."

Hundreds of soldiers lined entrances to downtown Beirut early on Wednesday, locking down the area home to the parliament building where the dialogue was being held. Armored vehicles lined streets in the sweltering summer heat as a sandstorm engulfed Lebanon for a second day.

"This government is afraid of its people, closing the roads to a constitutional institution - the parliament. We should be protesting today in front of the parliament, peacefully," said Marwan Maalouf, one of the founders of the "You Stink" campaign.

"This government is scared of the voice of anger of its people that has been going into the street for two months," Maalouf said in a televised interview with New TV.

He said the movement would go ahead with a protest at 6 p.m. in nearby areas.

A small group of protesters, some holding Lebanese flags, had already gathered at one of the newly erected barbed wire barricades blocking the way to parliament.

The dialogue comes after several weeks of protests that have occasionally turned violent. The protests have been organized independently of the main sectarian parties, posing a challenge to their influence.

Parliament, like other institutions of state, has barely functioned in recent years in a political crisis linked to wider regional turmoil, including the war in neighboring Syria.

The presidency reserved for a Maronite Christian has been vacant for more than a year, with no consensus on who should fill it.

Berri was quoted as saying the presidency would be the first item on the agenda. "We will expend every effort to reach a result in this regard but if that is not feasible we will move to other items," he was quoted as saying in As-Safir newspaper.

But underscoring the challenges, one of the candidates for the presidency - Maronite politician Samir Geagea - was quoted by National News Agency as saying the dialogue would not resolve anything.

Salam's cabinet includes Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, and the Future Movement, led by the Saudi-backed Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, together with rival Christian parties.

(Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Tom Perry and Alison Williams)