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
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