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Lebanon marks first anniversary of protest movement

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Beirut (AFP)

Lebanon marks the first anniversary on Saturday of a non-sectarian protest movement that has rocked the political elite but has yet to achieve its goal of sweeping reform.

A whirlwind of hope and despair has gripped the country in the year since protests began with an economic crisis and a devastating August 4 port explosion pushing Lebanon deeper into decay.

Two governments have resigned since the movement started but the country's barons, many of them warlords from the 1975-90 civil war, remain firmly in power despite international as well as domestic pressure for change.

Demonstrators plan to march from the main Beirut protest camp towards the port -- the site of a devastating explosion, which has been widely blamed on the alleged corruption and incompetence of the hereditary elite.

There they will hold a candlelit vigil near ground zero at 6:07 pm (1507 GMT), the precise time when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded, killing more than 200 people and devastating swathes of the capital.

Activists have installed a statue at the site to mark the anniversary of their October 17 "revolution".

"We still don't recognise" our political leaders as legitimate, said one prominent protester, who gave her name only as Melissa.

"We are still on the street... standing together in the face of a corrupt government," the 42-year-old said.

- 'Between two Octobers' -

The immediate trigger for last year's protests was a government move to tax Whatsapp calls, but they swiftly swelled into a nationwide movement demanding an end to the system of confessional power-sharing it says has rewarded corruption and incompetence.

The country's deepest economic downturn since the civil war has led to growing unemployment, poverty and hunger, pushing many to look for better opportunities abroad.

A spiralling coronavirus outbreak since February prompted a ban on public gatherings but even without protesters on the streets public resentment has grown.

"Between two Octobers': bankrupcy and humiliation" read the main headline in Lebanon's Al Joumhouria newspaper.

The explosion at Beirut port served as a shocking reminder to many of the rot at the heart of their political system.

It prompted protesters to return to the steets in its aftermath but the movement then shifted most of its energy to relief operations to fill in for what it sees as an absent state.

The political class has since failed to form a new government that can meet the demands of the street and international donors who have refused to release desperately needed funds.

French President Emmanuel Macron who visited Lebanon twice in the aftermath of the port blast said Lebanon's ruling class had "betrayed" the people by failing to act swiftly and decisively.

- 'Year two' -

President Michel Aoun will hold consultations with the main factions in parliament next week before designating a new prime minister for the third time in less than a year.

Saad Hariri, who bowed out in the face of the first protests last October, is expected to make a comeback in an appointment that activists are likely to reject.

The protest movement, meanwhile, has maintained a loose structure that some analysts believe could be an impediment to change.

"The lack of political programmes and leadership have made the process and progress rather daunting and difficult," said Jamil Mouawad, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut.

The protest movement is eager to show it has not lost momentum.

"Year two of the Thawra," read the main headline in the French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour, using the Arabic word for 'revolution' which for most Lebanese has become synonymous with the protest movement.

In the northern city of Tripoli, which saw some of the most vibrant protests last year, activists started gathering on Friday night.

"We salute our revolution, which we believe is still continuing and will not die until we achieve our demands," said 37-year-old protester Taha Ratl.

"We want all of them to quit."

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