U.S. says supports Lebanese people's call for action for economic reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lebanese people are “rightfully angered” with their government over its refusal to tackle corruption and Washington supports their right to demonstrate peacefully, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Wednesday.

Lebanese army soldiers confront with demonstrators in an attempt to open a blocked road during ongoing anti-government protests in the port city of Sidon, Lebanon October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

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

Describing the protests “long overdue”, the official called on the Lebanese government to carry out the economic reforms demanded by the people, adding Beirut should not get a “bailout” from the crisis.

“The people in Lebanon are frustrated. The crowds that are coming out are enormous...and people want to see action. The United States government supports their call for action for reform for fighting corruption,” the official told reporters. “This is not a new problem. The economic crisis that Lebanon is currently facing was a slow train coming.”

Flag-waving protesters kept roads blocked with vehicles and makeshift barricades for a seventh day on Wednesday. Banks have been closed since Friday and will remain shut on Thursday, the banking association said. Schools are also closed.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government announced an emergency reform package on Monday to try to assuage public anger and steer the state away from a looming financial crisis.

Washington was in routine contact with their Lebanese counterparts but was not up to the United States to tell Beirut what to do, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It remains to be seen whether the Lebanese people will accept what’s been tabled,” he said. “We have been talking with them about reform for a very long time.”

Sources said Lebanese leaders are discussing a possible government reshuffle to defuse the protests. Lebanon’s highest Christian Maronite authority and a prominent Druze politician threw their weight behind the groundswell for change, calling for qualified technocrats to be included in any government shake-up.

In a statement on Tuesday, the French government urged Beirut to carry out the reforms, which are key to unlocking some $11 billion in financing pledged by France and other countries and lending institutions last year.

The official said Washington saw the announcement of the emergency reforms but they needed to be put in action for the financial package to be rolled out. “Funds will be released when these reforms are enacted and implemented,” he said.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Sandra Maler, Cynthia Osterman and Lincoln Feast.