Lebanese protests, politics resume with a new, virus twist

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Lebanon's parliament began a three-day legislative session at a Beirut theater so that legislators can observe coronavirus social distancing measures, as protests against the country's ruling elite in the crisis-hit country resumed, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 21, 2020,. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT – Lebanese lawmakers convened Tuesday inside a cavernous Beirut theater so that parliament members could observe social distancing measures imposed over the coronavirus pandemic. Anti-government demonstrators, meanwhile, also obeyed the health safety measures — driving around the city in their cars to protest the country's spiraling economic and political crisis.

As lawmakers wearing face masks arrived at the theater, known as the UNESCO palace, white uniformed paramedics sprayed them with disinfectant before they entered the gate one at a time.

The staggered, three-day session is the first by parliament since Lebanon imposed a lockdown more than a month ago to limit the spread of the virus and after meetings that were scheduled last month were postponed. The new coronavirus has infected at least 677 people and killed 21 in Lebanon. For the first time since March 3, when cases were still rare, no new infections were recorded in the last 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry's daily report Tuesday.

On the lawmakers' agenda are dozens of laws, including fighting corruption in the country's bloated public sector, a controversial draft about general amnesty and restoring looted public funds. They voted Tuesday to allow the planting of cannabis fo r medical use.

To coincide with the session, hundreds of protesters drove around Beirut in cars in a show of rejection for the political leadership that they blame for the crisis roiling the country.

“All they care about is a general amnesty law. We want to know amnesty for whom? There’s no need for that," said Dana Al Hajj, a protester. “We need laws for economic reforms, this is what the country needs. We are in an emergency and we need to know what the government and the legislators are doing about it.”

Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with unemployment figures soaring and the local currency losing more than half of its value against the dollar. Protests broke out nationwide in October against government corruption, further deepening the economic slump.

Over the past months, the protests lost some of their momentum and were subsequently interrupted by the outbreak or the pandemic. Activists, however, said they were resuming the movement but would protest inside their cars, in line with safety measures.