TENS OF THOU­SANDS OF LE­BANESE RE­TURN TO STREETS IN PROTEST

Peo­ple mass in towns and ci­ties to re­new calls for the govern­ment to go on 17th day of demon­stra­tions

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - JAMES HAINES-YOUNG and SUN­NIVA ROSE

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered in squares across Lebanon yes­ter­day in an­swer to a call for a mil­lion-per­son march of unity to mark the 17th day of a na­tion­wide upris­ing against the govern­ment.

By af­ter­noon, thou­sands had gath­ered in Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre with more flood­ing into the cen­tral squares as the evening drew in. Even small vil­lages such as Kafa Roum­mane out­side Na­batieh in the south wit­nessed a rally of sev­eral hun­dred de­spite re­ports of threats and in­tim­i­da­tion.

The area is dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cally by Hezbol­lah and their Amal Move­ment but it has strong com­mu­nist party his­tory. It was once col­lo­qui­ally called Kafa Moscow.

Even as the size of the protests have ebbed and flowed across Lebanon, Tripoli in the north has stayed con­sis­tent. On a quiet Satur­day with rel­a­tively smaller protests else­where, images and videos from the north­ern city’s Al Nour square showed tens of thou­sands danc­ing to loud mu­sic and chant­ing slo­gans against the govern­ment.

“We are the pop­u­lar rev­o­lu­tion, you are the civil war,” peo­ple chanted in uni­son on Satur­day night.

But the largest counter-protest so far was also held near Baabda Palace on Satur­day.

Thou­sands of sup­port­ers from the Free Pa­tri­otic Move­ment gath­ered to show their sup­port for Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, care­taker for­eign min­is­ter and party leader Ge­bran Bas­sil.

“We’re here to say to Aoun that we love you and re­new our trust in you,” said Hiyam Khairat at the rally. Wear­ing a shirt em­bla­zoned with Mr Aoun’s face, Ge­orge Bar­bar said he had driven from north­ern Lebanon to show his sup­port: “If peo­ple don’t join hands with the pres­i­dent, there will be no Lebanon,” Mr Bar­bar said.

Mr Bas­sil, who has not been seen in pub­lic since the start of the protests, at­tended and the pres­i­dent made a sur­prise speech. Ap­pear­ing on screens at the rally, Mr Aoun raised his arms to flash the vic­tory sign.

“I am with you and I love all of you, and all of you means all of you,” Mr Aoun told his sup­port­ers, re­pur­pos­ing a pop­u­lar “all of them means all of them” chant de­mand­ing all politi­cians and lead­ers step down.

Mr Aoun said he has a three­step plan to fix the coun­try –

end cor­rup­tion, im­prove the econ­omy and build a civil, not sec­tar­ian state. He gave no de­tail on how he would re­verse decades of de­cline on these is­sues.

“We have warned our part­ners that we will get to this stage … and we are here to tell [the peo­ple who protested] that we are with them and let’s con­tinue to­gether,” Mr Bas­sil told the crowd in his ad­dress.

The FPM head has been sin­gled out by the pro­test­ers across the coun­try and is ac­cused of be­ing one of the main stum­bling blocks to pass­ing needed eco­nomic re­forms.

There is no word yet on the for­ma­tion of a new govern­ment af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri re­signed last Tues­day.

But a ma­jor hold-up, ac­cord­ing to po­lit­i­cal sources, is whether Mr Bas­sil will have a po­si­tion in the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Pro­test­ers gath­ered in Mar­tyrs Square in cen­tral Beirut ex­pressed mixed feel­ings about Pres­i­dent Aoun’s live ad­dress.

“We were here on the street for over two weeks. We were like, Michel Aoun where are you? He says he is the fa­ther of all of us but he’s not show­ing us that he is,” Tina Hu­jeiry, 17, who lives in Baabda, told The Na­tional.

Since protests started on Oc­to­ber 17, the pres­i­dent had spo­ken pub­licly only twice, in brief pre-recorded tele­vised speeches.

Lebanon’s near-daily protests have brought to­gether peo­ple from across the coun­try. While there is no lead­er­ship to the move­ment, and there­fore no set list of de­mands, a com­mon call is for the res­ig­na­tion of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and the for­ma­tion of a non-po­lit­i­cal tech­no­cratic govern­ment to pass re­forms to stave off the loom­ing fi­nan­cial col­lapse and also pass a new non-sec­tar­ian elec­toral law to hold an early vote.

While the govern­ment of Mr Hariri has re­signed, nei­ther Speaker of Par­lia­ment Nabih Berri nor Mr Aoun ap­pear likely to fol­low suit. Mr Hariri is also the favourite to head the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Mr Aoun’s of­fice said on Satur­day that he would set the date for for­mal con­sul­ta­tions with po­lit­i­cal par­ties on the next prime min­is­ter-des­ig­nate “soon”, but first had to re­solve sev­eral com­pli­ca­tions.

“The chal­lenges in front of the fu­ture govern­ment re­quire a rapid but not hasty ap­proach to the des­ig­na­tion process be­cause rush­ing in such cases can have harm­ful con­se­quences,” his of­fice said.

Pro­test­ers in Beirut said that they hoped that peo­ple would re­main united in their re­jec­tion of their lead­ers.

“Tripoli, Beirut, one hand,” chanted Rami Geiadeh, 17, one of a group of young men from Tripoli who joined the Beirut rally.

He said he hoped that “the Sunni, Chris­tians and Shi­ite will rise up to­gether and the govern­ment will fall”.

But some par­tic­i­pants said they were un­sure of what will come next.

“We are like a bus that has filled up with peo­ple that sud­denly re­alise that there is no driver,” said Walid Qassem, a re­tired mar­ket­ing man­ager. “We need more or­gan­i­sa­tion.”

Speak­ing about Mr Aoun’s sup­port­ers, Mr Qassem said: “They are much more or­gan­ised than us. We are alone, and they are backed by Hezbol­lah”, the in­flu­en­tial Shi­ite Iran­backed party that is an ally of the FPM.

Pro­test­ers gather in Mar­tyrs’ Square dur­ing the 17th day of anti-govern­ment protests in Beirut yes­ter­day

Lebanon’s protests have brought to­gether peo­ple from across the coun­try

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