Protests paralysed Lebanon for a ninth day on Friday and a global credit ratings agency said the government’s limited capacity to address demonstrators’ demands could further test depositor confidence and weigh on foreign exchange reserves.
Demonstrators waving Lebanese flags blocked roads with some pitching tents on highways.
The leader of the powerful Shia group Hezbollah, an influential player in Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s coalition government, will address the crisis in a speech later on Friday.
The protests have cut roadways, closed schools, and shut banks nationwide. Emergency reform measures and an offer of dialogue with protest representatives by the president have so far failed to defuse anger or move people from the street.
Numbers have declined since Sunday when hundreds of thousands took over Beirut and other cities in the largest demonstrations in years, but they could grow again over the weekend.
Lebanon’s largely sectarian political parties have been caught off guard by the cross-communal nature of the demonstrations, which have drawn Christians and Muslims, Shia, Sunni and Druze.
Waving Lebanese national flags rather than the partisan colours normally paraded at demonstrations, protesters have been demanding the resignation of all of Lebanon’s political leaders. “All of them means all,” has been a popular slogan.
“We want to stay on the street to realise our demands and improve the country,” one 30-year-old protester, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Essam, told AFP news agency. “We want the regime to fall… The people are hungry and there is no other solution in front of us.”
Demonstrations have been largely peaceful, although late on Thursday scuffles broke out in central Beirut between demonstrators and Hezbollah supporters who entered the crowd, leading the police to intervene, witnesses said.
In central Beirut, where street parties have gone on into the early hours, groups of volunteers again gathered to collect the trash.
“We are on the street to help clean up and clean up the country,” volunteer Ahmed Assi said. “We will take part in the afternoon to find out what the next stage will be,” said the 30-year-old, who works at a clothing company.
The demonstrations have been fuelled by dire economic conditions and anger at the political elite accused of plundering state resources for personal gain, bringing turmoil to the streets of a nation already in deep economic crisis.
President Michel Aoun suggested on Thursday a government reshuffle was on the table. Prime Minister Hariri said he “welcomed” the president’s call to “review the government”.
But Hezbollah has said it is against a change of government.
There have been no signs of moves towards a reshuffle mooted by Aoun. Al-Akhbar newspaper said on Friday “all indications” were the initiative that would not “certainly lead” to a reshuffle.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from a Beirut protest site where demonstrators banging tambourines and drums had blockaded the street, said there was uncertainty over how the crisis could play out.
“The voices of protesters – here in Beirut and up north in Tripoli – have been the same when it comes to calling for the removal of all those who’ve been running the country for the past few decades. They will tell you, everyone must go and we will not settle until they are all gone. This is going to be a major challenge, because the government isn’t going anywhere right now, and neither are the protesters.
“There remains a lot of support for political parties and people that supporters of these parties will come and seek to cause trouble among the protesters. There are uncertain times ahead here. Nobody knows how this will play out.”
As politicians ponder ways out, the clock is ticking because of financial strains in Lebanon, one of the world’s most heavily indebted states.
Exacerbating the economic situation, capital inflows vital to financing the state deficit and imports have been slowing down, generating financial pressures not seen in decades, including the emergence of a black market for dollars.
In a report issued on Thursday, credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s placed Lebanon’s ratings on “CreditWatch negative”.
It said this “reflects our view that declining foreign currency inflows could exacerbate fiscal and monetary pressures while limiting the government’s response to pressing societal demands”.
While the central bank’s usable foreign currency reserves were sufficient to service government debt in the near term, risks to government creditworthiness have risen, it said.
There was “at least a one-in-two chance” S&P could lower the government’s ratings following a review within the next three months into how the government responds to current pressures and its effectiveness in restoring depositor confidence.
It also said despite reasonably high levels of gross foreign exchange reserves, including gold, of almost $50bn the imposition of “soft capital controls raise questions about the monetary regime”.
“We understand that banks have imposed restrictions on US dollar withdrawals,” S&P said.
Deposit outflows totalled $2.1bn for the first eight months of the year. The central bank’s usable foreign exchange reserves are estimated to stand at $19bn at the end of 2019, it said.
Lebanon’s central bank governor and finance minister could not immediately be reached for comment on the S&P report.
Banks are set to remain closed until the situation stabilises out of safety concerns, the banking association said on Thursday. It has been a week since banks last opened.
The government this week announced reforms that include a one-time tax on bank profits and cuts to salaries of top officials, saying the measures would narrow the 2020 budget deficit to 0.6 percent.
“In our view, recent widespread protests suggest that the government’s dual aim of maintaining social stability and implementing reforms to reduce the general government deficit could be difficult to reconcile,” the S&P report said.