Lebanon News

Rage as Aoun urges protesters to go home

Protesters trying to put out a fire on the “Ring bridge” in Beirut, Nov. 12, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Angry protesters blocked roads across Lebanon Tuesday night after President Michel Aoun urged them to end four weeks of demonstrations and go home.

Aoun also signaled that the country would soon have a government of technocrats and politicians, whose main task would be to tackle corruption and resolve a deepening economic crisis.

In Beirut, the “Ring Bridge” was quickly closed and tires were set ablaze for a short period of time. Protesters flooded a main intersection in the southern port city of Sidon and insisted that they would not reopen the road. In Naameh, young men blocked the main highway with burning tires.

Tripoli, which has been one of the most popular cities during the protests, saw hundreds gather and several roads blocked.

In Zouk Mosbeh and Jal al-Dib, north of Beirut, protesters rushed to the streets and blocked the highway in both directions. The Beirut-Damascus highway was also obstructed in several areas.

The Army intervened in some areas to reopen the blocked roads.

A man reportedly belonging to the Progressive Socialist Party was shot dead in the Khaldeh area south of Beirut. The circumstances of the shooting were not immediately clear.

“If you continue in this way, you will strike Lebanon and your interests. ... I am placing you in front of this choice,” Aoun said in a televised interview. “We are working day and night to get the situation in order. If they keep going, there is a catastrophe. If they stop, there is still room for [us] to fix things,” he said.

Asked whether parliamentary consultations would begin Thursday or Friday, Aoun said: “We are still awaiting answers from some parties, so we may be delayed.”

“We want a government that is united, not divided,” Aoun added, saying that the most likely option for the makeup of the Cabinet would be a “techno-political” one.

Asked whether caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri would return to his position, the president said it “could or could not” be him.

Aoun emphasized during the interview that the next government should focus on achieving three of the protesters’ main goals: Fighting corruption rampant in ministries and state institutions, improving the economic situation and laying the foundation for the building of a “civil state.” The president warned that a government made up purely of independent technocrats, as protesters have demanded, would not be able to craft the country’s internal and external policies.

“A technocratic government cannot outline the country’s policies. I support the formation of a half-political and half-technocratic government,” he said. “Unless it is a techno-political government, it cannot have political cover from Parliament.”Responding to a question on the participation of Hezbollah, a key ally of the president, in the next government, Aoun said, “No one can force us to remove a party that represents a third of the people.”

Aoun dismissed one of the protesters’ most popular chants, “All of them means all of them,” as wrong. “This slogan is an unacceptable generalization of corruption,” he said, adding that there were decent and conscientious people both among politicians and protesters.

After questions on how the ruling class would restore the nation’s confidence, Aoun repeated his assertion that protesters and the state should “work together” to move forward.

He added that the three pillars of a successful state were fighting corruption, a robust economic plan and a strong civil society.

Aoun acknowledged that political interference was at the root of corruption in the judiciary.

The president rejected protesters’ demand for the change of the sectarian system, saying it needed instead to be amended with a majority of votes in Parliament.

Aoun’s interview came as international pressure ramped up on Lebanon to quickly form a “salvation government” to meet huge political and economic challenges.

This came during a meeting between Aoun and United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis together with a delegation of ambassadors representing the members of the International Support Group for Lebanon at Baabda Palace.

Kubis, in a statement after the meeting, called on Lebanon “to urgently nominate the prime minister-designate ... and to maximally accelerate the process of the formation of the new government of personalities known for their competence and integrity, trusted by the people.”

Such a government, he said, would be in a better position to “appeal for support from Lebanon’s international partners.”

Kubis said the U.N. was ready to support “urgent and long-term steps” to fight corruption, improve accountability, and contribute to growth and job creation. Lebanon is facing its worst financial crisis since the 1975-90 Civil War. Kubis said the authorities must prioritize “urgent measures to maintain the country’s monetary, financial and economic stability” during a “critical” financial and economic period.

“The continuous absence of executive and legislative action only compounds the crisis [and] contributes to social instability,” he added.

Kubis urged the Lebanese authorities to ensure the safety of protesters in the interest of “civil peace and national unity.”

Earlier Tuesday, Aoun also met with a delegation of Arab ambassadors.

According to a statement from the president’s office, Aoun briefed both delegations on the latest security and political developments in Lebanon, as well as his ongoing efforts to form a new government and adopt the “reform paper” approved by the now-resigned Cabinet last month.

Aoun called for the help of Arab countries to restore Lebanon’s economy, the statement said.

Meanwhile, a special envoy of French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beirut for talks with senior officials on defusing the crisis arising from the government’s resignation and to urge rival leaders to accelerate the formation of a new Cabinet.

Christophe Farnaud met Tuesday night with Walid Joumblatt at the Progressive Socialist Party leader’s Clemenceau residence. Talks centered on the latest developments in Lebanon and the region, a PSP media statement said.

He earlier met separately with Kataeb head MP Sami Gemayel and Ammar Moussawi as a representative of Hezbollah.

Farnaud, the French Foreign Ministry’s envoy for the Middle East and North Africa, is set to meet Wednesday with Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, Hariri, Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh, Army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil and Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh to discuss ways of resolving the current crisis.

The French diplomat is expected to meet with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and members of the economic sector and civil society Thursday before he flies home.

Some of the civil society members with whom he will meet have been involved in the nationwide protests, but many were active beforehand, including during recent municipal and parliamentary elections, according to a diplomatic source. They are not representatives of the protesters, the source noted, contrary to a local press report.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2019, on page 1.

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