BEIRUT: Protesters Tuesday forced lawmakers to postpone two Parliament sessions after blocking roads leading to Nijmeh Square.
Despite scuffles and gunshots in the morning, demonstrators stood firm in preventing MPs from entering Parliament before Speaker Nabih Berri announced his decision before noon.
Lawmakers were scheduled to elect committee members and then hold a legislative session that included a series of draft laws that demonstrators strongly oppose.
Protesters hailed the decisions announced by Berri as a victory on Lebanon’s 34th consecutive day of nationwide protests.
Berri took an indirect jab at the Interior Ministry for failing to ensure the opening of key roads leading to Parliament. Many blocs and MPs followed through on their promises, “but other sides did not commit to what they promised,” Berri told visitors at his Ain al-Tineh residence later in the day, without elaborating.
This was the second time in as many weeks that Berri was forced to postpone Parliament.
Several protesters attempted to remove barbed wire fences and barricades set up the night before and were hurt after security forces intervened, leaving a number of protesters bloodied.
Protesters blocked a two-car convoy from entering Parliament before gunshots were fired into the air from one of the cars in Beirut’s Bab Idriss area. The cars, alleged to belong to caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, weaved through the crowd toward Parliament before turning around, at which point shots were fired. Khalil denied being in the car, saying he arrived at the Finance Ministry early Tuesday before heading to the nearby Parliament.
Among the items protesters opposed on the legislative session’s agenda were the establishment of a specialized court for financial crimes and a general amnesty law.
“If there was a single agenda item we saw hope in, we wouldn’t have come down and blocked the street,” Ahmad, a 23-year old psychology student, said as he blocked a road with other demonstrators in Downtown Beirut.
“The power is with the people,” he added. “For some time, we no longer felt that this was true. But the new generation is saying that the power is with us, and we will decide what’s going to happen.”
Due to Parliament’s inability to elect committees, the mandate of the current committees was extended, Parliament’s Secretary-General Adnan Daher announced at around 11 a.m.
Speaking from Parliament, Khalil noted that the mandate of committees had previously been extended in 1976 and 1989. Those years both fall within the country’s 15-year Civil War, when it was difficult for MPs to get to Parliament. Khalil said the work of vital institutions, such as Parliament, could not be upended by the exceptional circumstances Lebanon was currently experiencing.
But Tuesday’s decision means that parliamentary committees can meet and study laws - an important development especially for the Finance and Budget Committee, which must study and endorse the draft 2020 budget so that it can be put up for a vote in Parliament before the end of the year.
Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar was one of the few MPs who tried to make it to the session, albeit in an unconventional way - on the back of a motorcycle. He then turned around, walking through crowds of protesters as they surrounded him and chanted “All of them means all of them,” and “Down with the thugs’ rule.”
Ammar declined to comment on his decision to go to Parliament. He told The Daily Star that “the images speak louder than words.”
Protesters also checked ambulances and other emergency vehicles passing Parliament, suspicious that MPs would try to enter the building hidden inside them.
In a phone call with local news channel LBCI, Lebanese Red Cross Secretary-General George Kettaneh denied that this was occurring.
There was also some humor at the blockades. Protesters held up a group of men who were attempting to bring a slim cardboard box, apparently containing a poster, through one of the checkpoints. One shouted, “Check if Gebran Bassil is inside,” as those around him burst into laughter.
Meanwhile, three weeks after Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister, President Michel Aoun said he was continuing meetings with political forces before setting a date for binding parliamentary consultations to designate a new premier.
“I will set a date ... as soon as we have finished our discussions with the relevant political leaders,” Aoun said during a meeting Tuesday with U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis. The president added that this aimed to remove “obstacles in front of the government formation” and “making the job of the prime minister-designate easier.”
A proposal to designate former Minister Mohammad Safadi as premier collapsed over the weekend and has resulted in an outburst of tensions between Free Patriotic Movement and Future Movement officials.
Aoun reiterated previous declarations that the next government would include politicians, experts and representatives of the movement. This contrasts with protesters’ demands for a government of independent experts.
Aoun also said Lebanon’s deteriorating economic situation was being monitored and was being resolved “gradually.”
Khalil denied Lebanon had reached an economic and financial collapse. Many economists and experts have warned that the country was heading toward collapse and officials must urgently decide how it would be managed.
Separately, long lines formed at banks across the country although the atmosphere was generally calm.
Tuesday saw banks open for the first time in 10 days, but with restrictive measures in place. These include a weekly cap of $1,000 on withdrawals from U.S. dollar accounts as well as on limited transfers abroad for urgent, personal expenses.
To pass time as she waited for her turn Tuesday, one woman at a Bank Audi branch in Broummana was seen on local television sorting through a bag of parsley leaves, which she said she was going to use to make tabbouleh later in the day.