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Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen

Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen
November 19, 2019
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Protesters prevented Lebanon’s parliament from holding its first session in two months on Tuesday, escalating a wave of demonstrations against rulers blamed for steering the country into economic collapse. Banks reopened after a one-week closure, with police stationed at branches and banks applying restrictions on hard currency withdrawals and transfers abroad. Customers at some branches could only withdraw $300 although the banking association on Sunday had agreed a weekly cap of $1,000 on cash withdrawals from US dollar accounts. The protests erupted on Oct. 17 and the political situation has been deadlocked since Saad al-Hariri resigned as prime minister on Oct. 29, with no progress towards a deal on a new government. They have been fuelled by corruption among the sectarian politicians who have governed Lebanon for decades and are blamed for leading the country into its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war. Protesters want to see the entire ruling class gone from power. At the parliament, gunfire was heard as several dozen protesters forced two SUVs with official number plates and tinted windows to turn back as they approached the building, Lebanese television showed. The vehicles sped away after they were struck by demonstrators chanting “Out, out, out!” Parliament later announced the session had been postponed indefinitely due to a lack of quorum. Some protesters danced in celebration. “This is a new victory for the revolution and we are continuing until we achieve our goals,” said a protester named Abdelrazek Hamoud. The session’s agenda had included reelecting members of parliamentary committees and discussion of a controversial amnesty law that would lead to the release of hundreds of prisoners. Protesters were angry that the MPs were not tackling their demands for reform. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri had already postponed the session last week due to security concerns. Security forces had fanned out on Tuesday before dawn in central Beirut, shutting down roads around parliament with barbed wire. Police scuffled with protesters who tried to remove a barbed wire barricade. “How are they holding a session and not responding to the people? Those that are in the session have nothing to do with us, and it’s not what we asked for,” said a protester who gave her name as Maria.
The economic crisis, rooted in years of government waste and corruption, has now filtered into the financial system where Lebanese have encountered dollar shortages and a weakening of the pegged pound. Banks had mostly been closed since the protests started. While the weekly cap had been set at $1,000, three customers at Bank Audi were told they only able to withdraw a maximum of $300. Several customers at BankMed were told the cap was $400. A banking source said the $1,000 figure had been set as a ceiling for withdrawals and for some customers it was less depending on the amount in their account. “I have an account with $8,000 dollars and they won’t let me withdraw above 300. They told me you can take $1,000 out only if your account has above $100,000 in it,” said Bank Audi customer Charif Baalbaki, 43, a copywriter. Bank of Beirut customer Khalid Maarouf, 40, who works in textiles, said he didn’t know how he was going to come up with dollar payments he needed to make this month. “I need $20,000 before the end of the month to make payments to people and I can only get $1,000 each week,” he said.