President Aoun offers to meet protesters paralysing Lebanon

  • 24 Oct 2019

Sparked on October 17 by a proposed tax on free calls made through messaging apps such as WhatsApp, the protests have morphed into a cross-sectarian street mobilisation against a political system seen as corrupt and broken.

A Lebanese protester wearing clown facepaint imitating the comicbook and film character "The Joker" stands at a protest camp in Beirut on October 23, 2019. ( AFP )

Lebanon's president offered on Thursday to meet the protesters whose week-old mobilisation to demand a complete overhaul of the political system has brought the country to a standstill.

But Michel Aoun's first speech since the start of the unprecedented protest movement was met with disdain by demonstrators who see him and the entire political class as part of the problem, not the solution.

Sparked on October 17 by a proposed tax on free calls made through messaging apps such as WhatsApp, the protests have morphed into a cross-sectarian street mobilisation against a political system seen as corrupt and broken.

In his speech, Aoun told protesters he was "ready to meet your representatives ... to hear your demands."

He suggested that a government reshuffle might be needed, an option that other leaders have hinted they would consider — but which would fall far short of demonstrators' demand that the entire government quit.

Aoun-allied minister of state for presidential affairs Salim Jreissati told private TV LBCI that the government had three options: replacing four ministers from the Lebanese Forces party who quit the government on Saturday, a broader reshuffle, or the creation of a new government.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday presented a package of reforms, including cutting ministerial salaries, but the rallies have continued, crippling Beirut and other major cities.

"The reform paper that was approved will be the first step to save Lebanon and remove the spectre of financial and economic collapse," Aoun said.

Lebanese people take cover from the rain under umbrellas as they watch a televised speech by President Michel Aoun, during a demonstration in Beirut on October 24, 2019.(AFP)

"It was your first achievement because you helped remove obstacles in front of it and it was adopted in record speed," he told the protesters.

But dozens of demonstrators listening to the speech on loudspeakers outside parliament booed it, an AFP reporter said.

'All must go'

Protester Jad al Hajj, a mechanical engineering student, described Aoun's speech as "meaningless" and vowed to stay in the street.

"We want him to go and for this era to end — for all of them to go," he told.

More than a quarter of Lebanon's population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.

Almost three decades since the end of Lebanon's civil war, political deadlock has stymied efforts to tackle mounting economic woes compounded by the eight-year civil war in neighbouring Syria.

In previous days, tens of thousands have gathered all over Lebanon, with largely peaceful rallies morphing into raucous celebrations at night.

But in central Beirut's Martyrs' Square on Thursday, numbers were far lower, an AFP correspondent said.

Outside parliament in the afternoon, security forces intervened to quell tensions between protesters over chants against the leader of Shiite movement Hezbollah, local and state media said. One person was injured.

As rain poured down on the capital, others sought shelter in an iconic abandoned cinema on the edge of the square nicknamed "The Egg."

The British embassy in Beirut joined the United States in urging Lebanese leaders to respond to the "legitimate" frustrations of citizens.

In his speech, Aoun said he respected the right of protesters to speak up but urged them to open key roads that they have blocked.

Amnesty International said demonstrators peacefully cutting off roads was a legitimate form of protest and warned the army against dispersing them by force.

Anti-government protesters rally on the eighth day of protest against tax increases and official corruption, at Riad al Solh square in the capital Beirut on October 24, 2019.(AFP)

'Our basic rights'

Demonstrators again closed thoroughfares around the capital early Thursday, AFP correspondents and Lebanese media reported.

Sitting on the pavement of a major east-west artery, a 30-year-old said he had been protesting since the first day.

"People think we're playing but we're actually asking for our most basic rights: water, food, electricity, healthcare, pensions, medicine, schooling," he said.

Banks, schools and universities remained closed.

The president also echoed calls to stamp out graft in Lebanon, which ranked 138 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2018 corruption index.

"Every person who stole public money should be held accountable but it is important his sect doesn't defend him blindly," he said.

On Wednesday, a state prosecutor pressed charges against former prime minister Najib Mikati over allegations he wrongly received millions of dollars in subsidised housing loans, charges he denies.

The timing of the move was seen by some as a nod to protesters.

On Wednesday, the army deployed in the streets, sparking fears of clashes.

But protesters faced the troops with chants of "peaceful, peaceful" and a video of one soldier seemingly in tears was shared widely online.

In the southern Shia-majority city of Nabatieh, police however tried to disperse protesters by force, leaving several injured, the National News Agency said.

Local media reported that five local council members had quit in protest.

Demonstrators returned to protest in the city Thursday, some taking part in a traditional "dabkeh" dance.