“Whatever the solution is, we do not have any time left,” he said in a televised speech. Addressing the various political parties included in the government, he said, “Either our partners in the country give an honest answer on the solution, or I will have something else to say.” There has been widespread speculation that Hariri could resign.
Protesters took to Beirut’s streets early Friday and by late in the day were demonstrating in every major city in Lebanon. They demanded action to address their everyday hardships — including the rising prices of wheat and gas and the lack of clean water and clean air — in addition to condemning widespread corruption within the government, which has been dominated by the same families for decades.
The protesters closed off main roads throughout the capital, as well as the main airport highway. One traveler, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was concerned for her safety, said that there were no cars going in and out of the airport and that people were being transported by motorcycles and Lebanese army trucks.
Security forces fired tear gas into the crowds in Beirut on Friday night. Demonstrators withdrew and then charged the security forces in waves.
People hurled tear gas canisters back at security forces, while other officers came to the aid of the protesters, rubbing onions gently on their faces to help counter the sting. When asked whether they wished they could join the angry crowds, two policemen stood stony-faced. “I cannot answer you. I just cannot answer you,” one said after a pause.
In one incident, the crowd chased off a police car, throwing objects as it drove away, the only vehicle on the emptied streets. Elsewhere, riot police made arrests, grabbing some protesters under their arms and by the legs and hauling them into police cars.
Several developments over the past week seemed to add fuel to the protests: Wildfires ravaged parts of the country, but two firefighting helicopters were deemed inoperable because of government negligence; the minister of information announced plans to enforce a 20-cents-a-day fee for Internet phone calls, including on WhatsApp and Facebook; and there was a proposal to raise the value-added tax to 15 percent by 2022.
One protester, Wael, 24, said his mother has to leave the country every four months to treat her cancer, because there is no affordable medical treatment in Lebanon.
“Before someone goes to university here, he doesn’t think about what he’s going to major in but thinks about where he’s going to travel to after he gets his degree,” he said, crouching behind a car, hiding from the advancing security forces.
“I’m hoping that my future child won’t think about living abroad. I want him to live here,” said Wael, who gave only one name amid concern for his safety. But, he added, “we’re crushed.”
During a relatively small demonstration Thursday, a video was filmed showing a minister’s bodyguards shooting into the air over protesters. That was the final straw for many. Thousands rushed to the streets, filling the capital, Beirut, with bonfires, destroying construction sites and advertisement boards, and tearing down politicians’ banners.
At least two prominent Lebanese politicians have publicly asked Hariri to resign.
In his televised address, Hariri said that although the people have given the government many chances over the past three years, complacency and internal politics continued to stymie efforts to solve the country’s economic problems.
“Reforms do not mean taxes,” he said. “The way Lebanon functions must change.”
He suggested that anyone with a solution for the economic crisis should step up. But he did not offer any himself.
Asser Khattab contributed to this report.