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World

Lebanon Protests Turn Violent As Government And Economy Remain In Collapse

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Lebanon, anti-government protesters have declared a week of rage, and things have become more violent.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

KELLY: That is the sound of protesters last night shooting fireworks at security forces after a number of arrests. Amnesty International has rebuked the security forces for what it is calling excessive force, and NPR's Deborah Amos is tracking all this from Beirut. Hey there, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So a couple of nights of violence there - tell me what exactly is happening on the streets.

AMOS: This all came after a lull, and then the demonstrations came back full force. Some of the protesters smashed all the bank fronts along Hamra Street, and that's where the central bank is located. We took a walk down that street today. All the ATMs were smashed. No bank was spared.

The response from the security service is much tougher than at any time since the protests started in October. Police with clubs and tear gas wounded many. They arrested dozens. The local papers reported one female protester was blinded, and she suffered memory loss after a beating by police. The police also say 100 of their people were wounded.

Much of the protest was peaceful. There was blocking of highways, burning of tires. But security forces went after all the protesters, and it seemed like this was a turn in what's been happening on the streets.

KELLY: So that is how the protests are unfolding. What is it that protesters want?

AMOS: They have been demanding since the beginning, agree to a new government and fix this economy. The protesters have wide support among the Lebanese, who feel this economic collapse every day. We talked to Maha Yahya. She heads the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, and she worked on a 10-point action plan to fix the economy. She describes the daily consequences of inaction.

MAHA YAHYA: More businesses closing, people defaulting on loans, more and more people falling below the poverty lines - for Lebanon, it is on the scale of the Great Depression in the U.S. What needs to be done is not rocket science. We're not the first country to have gone through something like this. We know what needs to be done. Do it.

AMOS: And her call is to the political leaders of this country.

KELLY: Speaking of which, Deb, this is the point in this interview where, I suppose, normally I would ask you, how is the government handling all of this? Is there a government in place to handle this?

AMOS: There's been a caretaker government since October, when the protests forced the resignation of the prime minister. But the political elites are still bickering about an agreement on this new government. The protesters want technocrats appointed to fix the economy. The old political elite want to make sure their interests are taken care of, and that's how Lebanon has been run for the past 30 years. So you could say that what we're looking at is a generational clash.

KELLY: Which prompts me to ask, why isn't there a sense of urgency about figuring out a new government and a resolution here? It sounds as if everyone is suffering.

AMOS: Look. The elites don't really feel this. It's the average Lebanese who are suffering. They go to the bank. There are now currency controls. The dollar and the lira here are interchangeable. You're limited to the amount of dollars you can withdraw every week, so your life savings is out of reach. People think that their savings are being held hostage, and they believe senior politicians have been allowed to transfer funds abroad.

After the violence today, political leaders condemned it, and they called for the perpetrators to be prosecuted. But the United Nations envoy to Lebanon, he put out a strongly worded statement, and he blamed the politicians. He condemned their inaction while they watched the economy collapse.

KELLY: NPR's Deborah Amos reporting there on a very fast-moving situation in Beirut. Thank you so much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCADE FIRE SONG, "SUPERSYMMETRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.