Lebanon's government scrambles to respond to mass protests

BEIRUT — Protesters closed major roads around Lebanon ahead of an emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday, as politicians scrambled to put together a rescue plan for the country's crumbling economy and stem five days of mass anti-government protests.

Demonstrators placed barriers across major intersections in Beirut as well as other cities and towns across the country. Schools, universities, banks and government institutions remain shuttered as the country is gripped by the largest protests since the so-called Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Hundreds of thousands participated in Sunday's marches in downtown Beirut, in what has turned into a widening revolt against the country's sectarian status-quo and entire political elite. The outrage over the government's mismanagement of the economic crisis and proposed new taxes has unified Lebanon's often fractious society.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his government — an unwieldy national coalition of nine largely sectarian parties — a deadline that expires Monday evening to come up with convincing solutions to the economic crisis. He is expected to put forward a reform plan during the Cabinet's morning meeting at the presidential palace in Beirut's southeastern suburb of Baabda.

Amid the unrest, Lebanese troops were deployed on the main road to the palace to clear the way for Hariri and government ministers to reach Baabda.

Local media reported that the government's plan includes measures such as raising taxes on the country's banking sector, cutting salaries of top officials, legislators and ministers by half, abolishing taxes imposed recently and fixing the electricity sector that has cost state coffers billions of dollars over the past years.

Many protesters say they don't trust any plan by the current government. They've called on the 30-member Cabinet to resign and be replaced by a smaller one made up of technocrats instead of members of political factions.

The protests are building on long-simmering anger at a ruling class that has divvied up power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades but has done little to fix a crumbling economy and dilapidated infrastructure.

"I am with the reforms. I am against the destruction of Lebanon," said Rabih Zghaib a protester in Beirut. "Lebanon has been badly damaged by the politicians for 30 years. Today their thrones are shaking."

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed hope that Lebanon's government and political parties pay "attention to people's demands," the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

It was the first remarks by an Iranian official about the protests in Lebanon.

Iran enjoys wide influence in Lebanon through the militant Hezbollah organization that is armed and funded by Tehran. Hezbollah and its allies have a majority of seats in Lebanon's parliament and Cabinet.

In 2005, Lebanon witnessed protests and a mass uprising against Syria's occupation of the country, after Damascus was blamed for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a large car bomb.

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Associated Press writers Fadi Tawil in Beirut and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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