By JOSEPH KRAUSS
BEIRUT (AP) — On a main thoroughfare in Beirut on Monday, Lebanese protesters set up a living room with an area rug, a couch and a refrigerator. On another, they held a morning yoga class. And on a third road, a band with an accordion player sang one of the newest slogans of Lebanon’s anti-government protests.
“Hela, hela, hela ho, the road is closed, sweetie,” the song went — a reflection of how the protesters have grown more creative as they have blocked roads as part of massive anti-government demonstrations underway for the last 12 days.
The protests are directed at the political elites who have dominated the country since its 1975-1990 war, and who many accuse of corruption and economic mismanagement. The demonstrations have paralyzed the country, and the prolonged closure of banks has raised fears of an economic collapse.
“We are all tired, and we understand that people want to get back to their work, but we cannot stop now,” said Dina Yaziji, who joined the protests because, like many young Lebanese, she cannot find employment.
“We won’t stop until the regime steps down. If anyone has a problem with us let them speak to (President) Michel Aoun and ask him to step down. Then we’ll go home.”
In many locations, demonstrators have sat or lain in the streets in a form of civil disobedience, forcing security forces to drag them away by their arms and legs. In others, they have blocked routes with overturned dumpsters and burned tires, sending black smoke up into the air. Protesters set fires to block the airport road in Beirut early Monday before Lebanese troops in armored personnel carriers arrived to clear the route.
Lebanese soldiers forcibly removed protesters from a highway linking the southern city of Sidon to the capital, Beirut, and briefly detained around a dozen of them. No weapons were used and there were no reports of serious injuries from the confrontation.
The protests have been largely peaceful, with security forces exercising restraint. There have been few reports of arrests or serious injuries since the demonstrations began, and security forces have calmly stood guard around mass rallies held in public squares.
On Sunday, thousands of protesters formed a human chain stretching along major highways in and around Beirut.
Schools, banks and most businesses remained closed Monday, raising concerns that many Lebanese would not be able to receive their salaries at the end of the month. There are also fears of a run on the banks that could further deplete the country’s limited supply of foreign currency, potentially affecting its ability to import wheat, fuel and medicine.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon said banks would remain closed Tuesday for a 13th consecutive day “in light of the continuation of popular movements and awaiting the stabilization of general conditions.” But the banks said they were determined to pay public sector salaries, especially to members of the security forces, and had enough liquidity to do so.
In the latest sign of crisis, ATMs have mostly stopped dispensing American dollars, which have long served as a widely accepted second local currency. That has added to concerns the government may no longer be able to maintain a fixed rate of exchange with the Lebanese pound.
In an exclusive interview with CNN broadcast Monday, Lebanon’s central bank governor was asked how much longer the country could avert economic collapse, given its dwindling foreign reserves.
“It’s a matter of days, because the cost is heavy on the country, but more important, we’re losing every day confidence,” Riad Salameh said. “Finance and economy, it’s all about confidence.”
Long before the protests began, Lebanon’s economy was already suffering from a massive budget deficit and rising unemployment. Its debt ratio of $86 billion is one of the highest in the world, accounting for more than 150% of its gross domestic product.
The protesters blame the economic crisis on political leaders from various religious sects and factions who have dominated the country since the civil war. They say the sectarian power-sharing arrangement that ended the war has spawned networks of corruption, patronage and nepotism that have depleted the treasury and gutted public services.
Thirty years after the end of the war, power outages are still frequent, the water supply is unreliable and trash goes uncollected in many areas.