Demonstrations sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other messaging apps have morphed into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilisation against the political class.

A demonstrator argues with Lebanese army soldiers during ongoing anti-government protests at a highway in Jal el Dib, Lebanon on October 23, 2019.
A demonstrator argues with Lebanese army soldiers during ongoing anti-government protests at a highway in Jal el Dib, Lebanon on October 23, 2019. (Reuters)

Lebanese army troops scuffled with demonstrators on Wednesday as they struggled to unblock main roads after economic reforms proposed by the government failed to stem a historic wave of protests against the political elite.

Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded the streets for nearly a week, furious at a political class they accuse of pushing the economy to the point of collapse. 

Banks were closed for a fifth working day. Schools remained shut. Many highways were impassable.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government announced an emergency reform package on Monday to try to defuse the anger of protesters demanding the government resigns and also to steer the heavily indebted state away from a looming financial crisis.

Scores of young men and women in Sidon, 45 kilometres south of Beirut, blocked the highway at an entrance of the city by sitting on the ground from the early hours of Wednesday.

After failing to persuade protesters to open the road, which leads to and from the capital, soldiers beat some of them and the Red Cross took the injured to hospital, a witness said. That section of the highway reopened.

A security source said the army's decision was still to refrain from using any force. The army would try to convince protesters peacefully to open some roads, and most remained blocked across the country on Wednesday, the source said.

The demonstrations have been largely peaceful since Friday night when security forces clashed with some protesters in central Beirut.

People have been blocking highways as part of the protests which have united Lebanese from across the sectarian spectrum.

North of Beirut, local channels broadcast live from other parts of the highway, the main artery to the capital, showing protesters trying to resist the army's efforts to clear a path.

Lebanon's al Jadeed TV, live from the Nahr al Kalb region, some 35 km from Beirut, said army troops tried to force the road open. "Shame on you," protesters shouted at them as they tried to pick up people off the ground.

In the capital, Beirut, volunteers cleaned up the streets since the early morning, after a big protest the night before.

From 2007 until 2010, Lebanon's economy grew at an average of 9 percent annually. But it hit a major downturn in 2011, when a political crisis brought down the government and the uprising in neighbouring Syria stoked unrest among Lebanese factions.

Since then, growth has averaged a mere 1.5 percent, according to government estimates. Nadim Munla, Hariri’s senior adviser, said there will be no economic growth in 2020.

Nearly three decades after the end of the 1975 to 1990 civil war, Lebanon still experiences frequent cut-offs of water and electricity. With public transport networks virtually non-existent, its ageing roads are clogged with traffic. Chronic problems with waste management have sparked mass protests in recent years.

Source: Reuters