Protesters in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, rejected President Michel Aoun’s call for dialogue, demanding the government’s resignation before any such talks take place.
In a televised address to the nation on Thursday, Aoun said he was willing to meet demonstrators who have been taking to the streets for eight straight days calling for Lebanon‘s post-civil war leadership to be held accountable for years of corruption and economic mismanagement.
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The president insisted the government could not be toppled from the streets, but mooted a government reshuffle and pledged to back new legislation aimed at clamping down on corruption, saying the issue had “eaten us (Lebanon) to the bone”.
Aoun also threw his weight behind Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recently unveiled reform package – which had left protesters’ unimpressed – calling the measures “the first step to save Lebanon and remove the spectre of financial and economic collapse”.
‘He needs to give something’
But at Martyrs Square in central Beirut, where various civil society groups have set up tents, Aoun’s invitation for talks was swiftly rejected.
“It’s not acceptable because it doesn’t fulfil the needs of the people. His speech doesn’t meet the standards that people expect,” said Ali Hoteit, sitting inside a tent erected by a group of army veterans.
Alongside him, half a dozen men discussed politics as music blared in the distance. For them, the message was clear: There will not be any negotiations until the government falls.
“People have been here for eight days. They’re asking for the government to retire and the president is asking now for dialogue,” said Antoine Michael, a 35-year-old engineer from Mount Lebanon who was disappointed by Aoun’s speech.
“He needs to give something.”
Nearby, amid flag-bearing protesters in the square, Jamale Daouk expressed a similar view.
“[Aoun] knows very well our requirements,” said Daouk, who has been coming to the square daily to protesting with her husband Samir Diallo and daughter. “We don’t trust this government any more. We’re still here [protesting]. We’re waiting until the government falls.”
The reaction to Aoun’s speech echoed the reception given to the measures announced by Hariri on Monday, which included a commitment to no new taxes and modest government spending on housing loans and social programmes. He also said the government would pass a law to return money stolen from the state and announced a 50 percent cut in ministerial salaries.
Following Aoun’s speech on Thursday, Hariri said he welcomed the president’s call to review the current government through “constitutional mechanisms”.
اتصلت بفخامة رئيس الجمهورية ورحبت بدعوته الى ضرورة اعادة النظر بالواقع الحكومي الحالي من خلال الآليات الدستورية المعمول بها. @LBpresidency
— Saad Hariri (@saadhariri) October 24, 2019
TRANSLATION: “I called his Excellency the President of the Republic and I welcomed his call for the need to review the current government situation through the constitutional mechanism in force.”
The protests came amid a worsening economic crisis in Lebanon that many blame on the small number of sectarian politicians who have ruled Lebanon since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990.
They also came days after the worst forest fires in more than 10 years, causing outrage among Lebanese who blamed the government’s shortcomings for the scale of the damage.
The governing coalition says the protest action is only worsening the country’s deep economic problems. It has also accused opposition politicians of riding the wave of popular anger to push their own political agenda.
‘Country at a standstill’
But the protest movement, which itself has cut across religious lines and been largely leaderless, accuses the members of the political elite of enriching themselves amid weak economic growth, soaring borrowing costs and high unemployment. Since the demonstrations began, they have been blocking roads across Lebanon in a bid to keep up pressure on the government.
“Protesters are still on the streets of the capital, and other cities across the country,” Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said, adding that Aoun’s speech had failed to end the “almost paralysis of daily life” triggered by the mass demonstrations.
“Schools, universities and banks remain closed … The country is at a standstill,” she added.
“They (the protesters) want radical change; they want new faces in power who are not affiliated with the governing parties and they are promising to keep Lebanon on lockdown until that happens.”
For Daouk and Diallo, who had been living in France for 15 years before deciding to return to Lebanon eight years ago, there is no other option but to keep protesting.
“War still goes on in Lebanon. It’s not a war of bombs, but an economic war and we have to fight to save our country. It’s not for us, it’s for our kids. We have lived through war and we don’t want our children to relive it,” Diallo said.
“[Aoun] needs to listen to us … if he was with us (the people), he would have left a long time ago. He needs to leave.”
Additional reporting by Mersiha Gadzo in Beirut: @MersihaGadzo