Anti-government protests paralyse Beirut

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Supporters of Lebanon’s Hizbollah-led opposition blocked main roads in Beirut on Wednesday with burning barricades, paralysing the city and deepening a political conflict with the pro western government.

The opposition supporters set cars and tyres ablaze to block the main road to Beirut’s international airport, where air traffic was suspended because of an opposition backed strike to demand wage increases.

Opposition leaders, who are engaged in a drawn out struggle to bring down the western-backed government of Fouad Siniora, the prime minister, have called for demonstrations to coincide with the strike.

Activists loyal to the Shia Hizbollah movement also blocked routes to Beirut’s main commercial district.

Government supporters say the protest is politically motivated.

In an effort to head off a confrontation, the government on Tuesday increased the minimum monthly wage from $200 to $333 (€129-€214, £101-£169). But the General Labour ­Confederation is sticking to its demand for a more-than-tripling of the minimum wage.

Ghassan Ghosn, head of the GLC, blamed the government’s “economic agenda dictated by the World Bank and the IMF” for increasing hardship for the population. He said the government was not doing enough to keep down food and fuel prices that, as in the rest of the region, have risen steeply. Official inflation is 10 per cent but consumer groups say prices have risen 43 per cent in the past 21 months

Complicating the economic outlook is a lengthy and ongoing political crisis that has pitted the government against the opposition led by the pro-Iranian Hizbollah movement.

Lebanon has been without a president for more than six months, parliament is not functioning and the government’s ability to rule is undermined by the opposition’s claim that it is no longer legitimate.

Fears have mounted in the past couple of days that the strike might repeat the bloody confrontation in January 2007, when close to 30 people were wounded in riots following a strike call.

Most government supporters are unlikely to observe the stoppage as the GLC is often identified with the opposition but Mr Ghosn denies the strike is politically motivated. “Let them grant our demands and then they’ll see if we are concerned with politics or with social issues,” he said.

Louis Hobeika, an economist at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University, said the political crisis and accompanying doubts over security were seriously undermining the economy as they led to a lack of investment in industry and agriculture.

The economy is staying afloat because of the rising sum of money – an estimated $7bn annually – sent home by Lebanese living abroad, said Mr Hobeika. The number working overseas has risen in recent years, as has their income, especially for those in the Gulf. But Mr Hobeika warned that if the situation in Lebanon worsened, two-thirds of that flow could be redirected, which would hit the mainstays of the economy – banking and property.

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