Thou­sands mark an­niver­sary of Le­banon protest move­ment

▶ Chamel Roukoz, former army of­fi­cer, warns of at­tempts ‘ to make the rev­o­lu­tion fail in dif­fer­ent ways’

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - SUNNIVA ROSE Beirut

Thou­sands of Le­banese marched through Beirut yes­ter­day af­ter­noon to mark a year since the start of protests that led to an anti-govern­ment move­ment.

The mood was up­beat, but the crowd was sparse com­pared to the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who gath­ered in the cap­i­tal last year, an­gered by an eco­nomic cri­sis that has grown worse and pushed more than half of Le­banese into poverty. Pro­test­ers set off yes­ter­day af­ter­noon from the city cen­tre to the cen­tral bank, where they called for the res­ig­na­tion of its un­pop­u­lar gov­er­nor, Riad Salameh.

At Beirut port, they lit a torch and ob­served a minute of si­lence to com­mem­o­rate the at least 190 peo­ple who died in an ex­plo­sion that ripped through the cap­i­tal on Au­gust 4.

Peo­ple staged sim­i­lar protests in other parts of the coun­try, al­though in smaller num­bers than in Beirut, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal me­dia.

Pro­test­ers chanted “the peo­ple want the fall of the regime” and in­sults di­rected at the most in­flu­en­tial politi­cians, in­clud­ing Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun and Par­lia­ment Speaker Nabih Berri. “To­day, we want re­venge,” said pro­tester Roula Seghaier.

“We don’t need those peo­ple who run the govern­ment.”

She blamed the eco­nomic cri­sis for dis­cour­ag­ing more peo­ple from join­ing the protest.

“If they need to se­cure a roof over their head, of course they will re­treat from the streets, be­cause they have suf­fered a lot,” she said. “It’s up to us, who have the priv­i­lege of an eco­nomic in­come that comes from else­where, who don’t need to do the dance of nepo­tism within this cor­rupt sec­tar­ian sys­tem.”

The rally in the cap­i­tal re­mained largely peace­ful un­til the early evening, when se­cu­rity forces fired tear gas at some pro­test­ers gath­ered in cen­tral Beirut. Many of the pro­test­ers were young and said they wor­ried about their fu­ture.

“Those who have the money to go have left,” said Mark Badrou, 19. The me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent said he could not pay tu­ition fees abroad be­cause of bank­ing re­stric­tions.

“I have been un­em­ployed since I grad­u­ated from my mas­ter’s de­gree in chem­istry three years ago,” said Aya Huweiji, 24, from the east­ern city of Baal­bek.

“We don’t have any other choice than to keep protest­ing.”

On the an­niver­sary of Le­banon’s up­ris­ing, MP Chamel Roukoz urged peo­ple to find hope, not de­spair and unite to bring down po­lit­i­cal struc­tures.

The former chief of the spe­cial forces Rangers Reg­i­ment and son-in-law of Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun has long backed the up­ris­ing that be­gan last Oc­to­ber against cor­rupt pol­i­tics, in­equal­ity, eco­nomic malaise, poor govern­ment and bad ser­vice pro­vi­sion.

“I know that politi­cians have deep roots and hold the coun­try in their grip strongly and ef­fec­tively be­cause they were mili­tias be­fore [the 1975-1990 civil war],” he told The Na­tional.

“They are try­ing to make the rev­o­lu­tion fail in dif­fer­ent ways by in­fil­trat­ing groups with peo­ple who cause ri­ots or by [ask­ing] se­cu­rity forces to ar­rest peo­ple. All this makes peo­ple de­spair. The most im­por­tant thing is that the anger that is present in peo­ple trans­forms into hope, not into de­spair.”

Mr Roukoz, 62, said he had hoped the “rev­o­lu­tion” would have achieved more in a year and blamed protest groups for lack­ing unity.

He said he un­der­stood that many Le­banese had lost faith in po­lit­i­cal change.

“[Revo­lu­tion­ar­ies] over­came many dif­fi­cul­ties … With their words, and by stand­ing in front of politi­cians’ houses and in the streets, they reached lead

ers who thought that they were in­fal­li­ble,” he said.

“I hope that this year, the rev­o­lu­tion will con­tinue achiev­ing its goals and cre­ate a new power struc­ture to re­place the one that ex­ists to­day.”

The former army of­fi­cer parted ways with the Free Pa­tri­otic Move­ment, the po­lit­i­cal party founded by Mr Aoun, at the start of the anti-govern­ment move­ment.

He sought to play down his con­nec­tions to the pres­i­dent, say­ing “po­lit­i­cal work and the fu­ture of the coun­try are a sep­a­rate topic”.

Mr Roukoz, who be­came an MP in 2018, has a road map for mov­ing Le­banon out of its worst eco­nomic cri­sis.

“Ad­dress the de­mands of the peo­ple and build ac­count­abil­ity,” he said.

A govern­ment of ex­perts with ex­cep­tional pow­ers, he said, should work to­wards bring­ing about re­forms and work for six to nine months to “pre­pare a new stage in Le­banese pol­i­tics”.

“The solution is a new po­lit­i­cal struc­ture with non-cor­rupt peo­ple and a vi­sion to save the coun­try,” he said. Pub­lic de­bate should cen­tre on “a new elec­toral law and new elec­tions to ar­rive to a new po­lit­i­cal class that is dif­fer­ent from the cur­rent one”.

Par­lia­men­tary and mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions are sched­uled for 2022 but pro­test­ers are call­ing for an early vote.

Mr Roukoz has made sim­i­lar calls be­fore, dur­ing the protests of last Oc­to­ber.

But over the past 12 months, a large por­tion of Le­banese so­ci­ety have stopped at­tend­ing protests, es­pe­cially af­ter some po­lit­i­cal lead­ers turned against the move­ment – in­clud­ing Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah and its Shi­ite ally Amal.

Mr Roukoz, of­ten tipped as a po­ten­tial pres­i­dent, didn’t di­rectly an­swer the ques­tion on his own am­bi­tions for top of­fice. “There must first be re­forms [ and] ini­tia­tives to build laws and in­sti­tu­tions,” he said. “Then we’ll talk about who is best to be pres­i­dent.”

If Mr Roukoz does aim for the pres­i­dency af­ter his father-in­law leaves of­fice, he will likely have to face off against Mr Aoun’s other son-in-law – FPM leader Ge­bran Bas­sil.

AFP

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Chamel Roukoz rues di­vi­sions among protest groups

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