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Lebanese protesters pack streets to mark independence day

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By Reuters
Lebanese protesters pack streets to mark independence day
People attend a parade, on the 76th anniversary of Lebanon's independence, at Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares   -   Copyright  ANDRES MARTINEZ CASARES(Reuters)

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Lebanon on Friday to mark independence day with a fresh wave of demonstrations against a ruling elite accused of rampant corruption and steering the country into deep crisis.

The unprecedented wave of nationwide protests erupted five weeks ago, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Oct. 29. Despite a worsening economic crisis, deeply divided politicians have yet to agree on a new government.

Protesters waving Lebanese flags packed central Beirut’s Martyrs Square where music blasted into the night. Many protesters said they felt like they were celebrating independence for the first time.

“This year independence day is different. Before, they marred it with their system of sharing power and corruption. Today, we are demanding a clean independence and a country where we can live in dignity and pride,” said a protester who gave her name as Hind.

“It’s important to show up today of all days and be united as a country. Everyone is realizing what true independence looks like,” said Lydia, 21, who was protesting in Beirut.

A military parade usually held on the seafront near Martyrs Square was relocated to the defence ministry where Hariri, still serving as prime minister in a caretaker capacity since his resignation, attended a low-key ceremony with President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, is at odds with Aoun, Berri and the powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah over the make-up of the next government. Broadcaster al-Jadeed noted an “unusual” silence between Hariri and Berri while other members of the government chatted to each other.

Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, rooted in years of state corruption and waste. The crisis has spread to the financial system where the pegged Lebanese pound has weakened, dollars have become scarce and banks have imposed controls to prevent capital flight.

Aoun, in a televised speech marking independence day on Thursday, said it was “not the time for speeches, words and celebrations”. “It is time for work, serious and diligent work because we are in a race against time.”

(Reporting by Dala Osseiran and Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff)