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Lebanon's Standoff Worsens With Parliament Paralyzed by Protests

Dana Khraiche
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Lebanon's Standoff Worsens With Parliament Paralyzed by Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Lebanese protesters flocked to the capital Tuesday and forced parliament to postpone its session indefinitely after facing off with the army and anti-riot police, adding to a political storm in the country even as banks reopened after a weeklong closure.

The legislature will meet at a later date after demonstrators prevented enough lawmakers from reaching it to form a quorum, with some questioning the legitimacy of a session in the absence of a government. Amid the mayhem, vehicles belonging to deputies sped through central Beirut, with shots heard as two passing cars tried to disperse people.

The deepening crisis that’s gripped Lebanon for a month has paralyzed the economy, put pressure on its decades-old currency peg and raised the threat of default. Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down late last month and demonstrators are demanding a government of technocrats to avoid an impending financial meltdown.

Frustration has built as President Michel Aoun has yet to set a date for parliamentary talks to name a new premier. Major political parties nominated a wealthy businessman to lead the cabinet but he withdrew his candidacy after a backlash from protesters. Parliament already postponed a session a week ago because of unrest.

Aoun tried to preach calm on Tuesday, saying on Twitter that the “the economic and financial conditions are under control and will be gradually addressed.” He promised that the new government will include politicians as well as experts and representatives of the protest movement.

The legislature on Tuesday was set to discuss a series of anti-graft bills as well as a general amnesty law that protesters say will extend to those who committed financial and environmental crimes, offenses they accuse the political elites of carrying out.

Before the parliamentary session was postponed, security forces cordoned off entrances leading to Nejmeh Square in Beirut to prevent people from approaching the building and allow lawmakers to enter the session.

Adding to the unease, dozens of people stood outside banks in Beirut and elsewhere, with at least one security personnel stationed nearby to prevent a repeat of confrontations between employees and clients. Lenders, who have been closed for much of the past month, have jointly adopted a set of restrictions on the movement of capital to ward off financial chaos.

The worsening sentiment is playing out in the market. The government’s $2.1 billion of securities maturing in April 2021 fell two cents to 58 on the dollar, equating to a yield of 55%.

Lebanon’s dollar bonds have plunged 34% this year, the most globally after those in Argentina. Its average yields have soared to 28%, far into distressed territory, from barely 10%.

In central Beirut the tension was palpable.

A member of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, Ali Ammar, walked up to parliament but was heckled and quickly confronted by protesters. Police were removing metal barricades they had set up to allow some vehicles belonging to lawmakers to make their way into the session.

A group of lawmakers said they only planned to appear to elect legislative committees but would not attend the broader session.

“They shouldn’t go in because they need to focus on something else,” said one of the protesters, who didn’t give his name. “We need a government of technocrats, not a parliament session,” he said as he stood outside the entrance of downtown Beirut facing security forces and wearing the Lebanese flag as a scarf.

--With assistance from Paul Wallace.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dana Khraiche in Beirut at dkhraiche@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Paul Abelsky, Mark Williams

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