BEIRUT: Thousands of protesters outraged by corruption and proposed tax hikes burned tyres and blocked major highways in Lebanon on Friday as the largest demonstrations in years threatened the country’s fragile coalition government.

Demonstrators had taken to the streets on Thursday evening, calling for an overhaul of Lebanon’s sectarian political system and voicing contempt for their leaders.

Thousands of people of all ages, sects and political affiliations brought the capital Beirut to a standstill the following day as well as gathering in other parts of the country.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, one of the most polarising figures in Lebanon’s leadership, made an address insisting that the government’s resignation could lead to “something much worse than the current situation.” Under-fire Prime Minister Saad Hariri was to speak about the protests, which were sparked partly by a proposed new tax on users of WhatsApp and other messaging applications.

Surrounded by smoke from burning tyres, protesters flew the Lebanese flag and chanted “the people demand the fall of the regime!” — a popular refrain from the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Yara, a 23-year-old graduate, said she joined up because the protests were not sectarian.

“For once people are saying it doesn’t matter the religion, it doesn’t matter which political party you are following,” she said.

“Today what matters is that all of the Lebanese people are protesting together.” As dusk fell on the protests, riot police deployed en masse in central Beirut and readied for a second night of protests and rioting, a correspondent said.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2019