Beirut: Lebanese security services locked down central Beirut on Wednesday ahead of a meeting of politicians aimed at discussing ways out of a political crisis that has paralysed government and fuelled a wave of street protests.
Activists mobilising against government failures including a waste disposal crisis that has allowed garbage to pile up in Beirut have called protests to coincide with the "national dialogue" called by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.
Hundreds of soldiers lined entrances to downtown Beirut early on Wednesday, locking down the area home to the parliament building where the dialogue was due to begin at 11 a.m. (0800 GMT). Armoured vehicles lined streets in the sweltering summer heat as a sandstorm engulfed Lebanon for a second day.
"This government is afraid of its people, closing the roads to a constitutional institution - the parliament. We should be protesting today in front of the parliament, peacefully," said Marwan Maalouf, one of the founders of the "You Stink" campaign.
"This government is scared of the voice of anger of its people that has been going into the street for two months," Maalouf said in a televised interview with New TV.
He said the movement would go ahead with a protest at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) in nearby areas.
A small group of protesters, some holding Lebanese flags, had already gathered at one of the newly erected barbed wire barricades blocking the way to parliament.
The dialogue comes after several weeks of protests that have occasionally turned violent. The protests have been organised independently of the main sectarian parties, posing a challenge to these parties.
Parliament, like other institutions of state, has barely functioned in recent years in a political crisis linked to wider regional turmoil, including the war in neighbouring Syria.
A unity government led by Prime Minister Tammam Salam has struggled to take even basic decisions, while the presidency reserved for a Maronite Christian has been vacant for more than a year because there is no consensus on who should fill it.
Berri was quoted as saying the presidency would be the first item on the agenda. "We will expend every effort to reach a result in this regard but if that is not feasible we will move to other items," he was quoted as saying in As-Safir newspaper.
But underscoring the challenges, one of the candidates for the presidency - Maronite politician Samir Geagea - was quoted by National News Agency as saying the dialogue would not resolve anything.
Public discontent in Lebanon over problems including daily power cuts has come to a head over the waste disposal crisis. The government has yet to resolve the problem triggered by the long-scheduled closure of Beirut`s main rubbish tip in July.
Salam`s cabinet includes Shi`ite Muslim group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, and the Future Movement, led by the Saudi-backed Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, together with rival Christian parties.