Thousands mark anniversary of Lebanon protest movement
▶ Chamel Roukoz, former army officer, warns of attempts ‘ to make the revolution fail in different ways’
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.
Demonstrators wave flags in Beirut yesterday
Chamel Roukoz rues divisions among protest groups