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Hundreds Of Thousands Of Protesters Fill Main Squares In Lebanon


This is what Lebanon sounds like tonight.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Hundreds of thousands of protesters are filling main squares in cities throughout Lebanon as the country faces one of its worst financial crises in decades. Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier today announced plans for major economic overhauls. But after the announcement, protests only swelled. NPR's Daniel Estrin is at the protest in downtown Beirut.

Hi, Daniel.


SHAPIRO: What have the protests been like so far?

ESTRIN: Well, today's the fifth day, and they're unprecedented in Lebanon. They started out spontaneously, really, with people burning tires and some tear gas from police. That was five days ago. But it's really morphed into a kind of carnival in Beirut. There are popcorn vendors, ice cream vendors, people with their hookahs, their water pipes, dancing, carrying a lot of protest signs.

And people here are very up on American pop culture, so you have - you see signs like one saying, Prime Minister Hariri, sashay away. That's, of course, a reference to the TV competition "RuPaul's Drag Race"...

SHAPIRO: Of course.

ESTRIN: ...When a contestant gets eliminated, and then one sign referencing a villain from "Game Of Thrones." So it's a very kind of festive atmosphere.

But as these protests built up today, they were happening near the building where the cabinet was meeting to discuss this package of economic reforms to try to appease the protesters. And without warning, the prime minister gave a televised speech. He said the reforms have passed. It was broadcast on loudspeakers in the square. But then in the middle of his speech, protesters just shut off the broadcast. And here's what happened next.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

ESTRIN: The protesters chanted, we're not leaving. We're not leaving until the government falls. And that's really been a focus of the chants. I want to play you a little bit more of what we've been hearing, like this.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

ESTRIN: In this chant, they're naming politicians one by one, and they're saying, leave. We're also hearing that very famous chant from the Arab Spring, the people demand the fall of the regime, which is what we heard in Egypt and other Arab countries. So it really feels like this is now Lebanon's turn.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So what were the economic changes that the government announced, and why wasn't it enough for the protesters?

ESTRIN: Well, the government announced, first of all, no new taxes. They are cutting government officials' salaries in half. There's been a lot of anger here at politicians getting richer while normal people's wages are low. They also announced privatizing the telecoms industry because cellphone plans here are very expensive. They announced fast-tracking licenses for new power plants because there are daily electricity cuts in most Lebanese cities.

And the prime minister said to protesters, you are what led us to pass these reforms. You do have a right to keep protesting. But we spoke to people here who said, we don't trust in the government's promises, like Sophie Akkouri.

SOPHIE AKKOURI: They just go up now on TV and give a speech just to shut us up. But we're not going. We're going to stay here until they all resign.

ESTRIN: She's 22. Her friends are graduating college. They're moving abroad for better opportunities. And she says, I want change in my country, so I want to protest, and I don't want to have to do the same and move abroad.

SHAPIRO: You said the protests have only been growing since the government announced these economic changes. So what do you think is going to happen?

ESTRIN: I think tonight's going to determine where all this goes, whether these protests die out or if people keep protesting. I mean, their demands are quite clear. They want the entire political establishment to fall because many politicians have been in office for decades.

The protests have been peaceful so far. There are now questions of whether they could turn violent because, for instance, protests have broken out in areas that are strongholds of the Hezbollah militant group. And these are areas where people are demanding the fall of the government for the very first time, and Hezbollah is a major part of the government. There was a report of gunfire in one area and now reports of Hezbollah supporters riding around in motorcycles. And the question now is, you know, will these protests, which have been celebratory - could they turn violent?

SHAPIRO: It's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Beirut.

Thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEXTER SONG, "CHARDONNAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.