Hundreds of thousands have thronged public squares across Lebanon in the largest protests the country has seen since 2005, unifying an often divided public against leaders who have ruled for three decades and brought the economy to the brink of disaster.

Ditching party flags and carrying only Lebanese flags, they flooded streets in Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli and cities, towns and villages near the southern border with Israel and along the Syrian border in the east.

In central Beirut, the scene was reminiscent of the days after prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a massive bombing in 2005, triggering a mass uprising against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon after Damascus was blamed for the killing.

The anti-government protest in central Beirut
The anti-government protest in central Beirut (Hussein Malla/AP)

That uprising briefly unified Lebanese from all religious sects and eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon — after which society fragmented once more into bitterly divided camps.

The uprising began four days ago after the government announced new tax proposals. The announcement turned long-simmering anger into outright fury at a ruling class that has kept power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades, but done little to fix a crumbling economy and dilapidated infrastructure.

Lebanon’s sectarian-based and elite-dominated political system has mostly kept the peace since the 1975-90 civil war but has also spawned political paralysis and endemic corruption.

In Lebanon the president is a Maronite Christian, the parliament speaker a Shiite, and the prime minister a Sunni. Cabinet and parliament seats are equally divided between Christians and Muslims.

Protesters march through Beirut
Protesters march through Beirut (Hassan Ammar/AP)

For the first time, protesters openly took aim at powerful sectarian leaders from their own communities, turning against warlords previously regarded as untouchable and challenging them in their own strongholds.

The warlords have long guaranteed loyalty by styling themselves as their sect’s protectors and passing out patronage to its members.

In Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni city, some protesters chanted against and tore posters of Saad Hariri, the Sunni PM.

Another target was Nabih Berri, the 81-year-old Shiite speaker of parliament who has held the job for a quarter of a century and embodies Lebanon’s political status quo.

On Saturday, protests in the southern city of Tyre, a stronghold of Mr Berri’s Shiite Amal movement, turned violent when his supporters attacked protesters who named him among corrupt officials and tore down his posters.

Saad Hariri
Saad Hariri (Hassan Ammar/AP)

In several incidents in southern Lebanon, residents defiantly stood in front of armed Amal members, telling them they would not stop the protests even if they were shot.

Even the powerful leader of Hezbollah has not been spared, although he was not directly insulted during protests in the group’s Shiite stronghold in southern Beirut. “All of them, and Nasrallah is one of them,” they shouted.

“Thieves, thieves, thieves” the protesters in Beirut and elsewhere chanted, naming almost every senior Lebanese politician, cursing them or demanding they step down.

The atmosphere among demonstrators was euphoric and unbridled. Rallies turned into parties with music blaring and protesters dancing, singing and chanting: “The people want to bring down the regime.”

In the mornings, young men and women carried blue bags and cleaned the streets of the capital picking up rubbish left behind by the previous night’s protests.

Lebanon suffers from high unemployment, little growth and one of the highest debts ratios in the world, standing at 150% of GDP. Public services have been stagnant for years.