BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president on Thursday broke his silence about the protests that have swept the country, appealing to people to ditch their demonstrations and back reform measures to save the economy.
It was President Michel Aoun’s first speech since protests erupted last Thursday, with tens of thousands of people pouring onto the streets, staging sit-ins and striking over proposed new taxes and austerity measures. There is also deep-rooted anger over corruption and mismanagement.
A package of reform measures — including dramatic salary and budget cuts — was unveiled by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday evening in response to the anger.
“The government cannot be changed in the squares,” said Aoun in a pre-recorded televised address, referring to the sit-ins. “It must happen through constitutional reforms. Let’s initiate a constructive dialogue where practical measures are taken to reach the best results. Dialogue is the best way to solution.”
Sectarianism had destroyed Lebanon and his ambition was to get rid of this sectarian mentality toward a civil state, he added. “Anyone who stole public money must be held accountable, but it is important that his community does not defend him blindly.”
The reforms were a “first step” toward saving Lebanon and must be accompanied by legislation because the fight against corruption was done through laws and not by slogans and election campaigns, said the president.
Aoun called on the Lebanese people to monitor the reforms to ensure their success. “The squares are always open to you, in case of any delay or procrastination,” he said.
But people who spoke to Arab News were unconvinced by Aoun’s appeals and promises.
“We will continue with our movement and there are no negotiations with anyone before the resignation or dismissal of the current government,” activist Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad told Arab News.
“The people in the street will evaluate, accept or reject any alternative government. We want it to be a transitional government that will work on holding early parliamentary elections.”
He alluded to the leaderless nature of the protests, saying the movement was nonetheless organized and featured groups with previous experience in parliamentary elections.
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These groups were talking to each other and were coalescing, he added, and anyone who tried to become the leader would be rejected.
“Aoun must announce the immediate resignation of the government. We will stay in the streets despite all the pressures and difficulties. They represent the people and they have to hear people’s calls. The parties are not able to call for parallel protests, because our demands mimic the demands of the supporters of the parties and, therefore, the parties are afraid to be exposed. We are telling them that many of your supporters are protesting with us and you are terrified.”
Some people booed the president’s speech, saying they did not trust the people in power.
One protester in Riad Al-Solh Square said: “Aoun’s speech is disappointing. People of all sects have taken to the streets, what sectarian mentality is he talking about? It is only in the head and heart of the rulers.”
Another said: “We agree on the big points raised by Aoun in his speech but we disagree on the method to implement them. We want a different executive authority, from specialists whose mission is to hold early parliamentary elections.”
There was also anger about a speech that some felt was too little, too late.
“I have no confidence in a president that reads from a written paper and does not dare to address his people directly,” said one protester, while another activist said he wished the president had resigned.
Some Aoun supporters, most of them elderly and only a few young people, gathered in the square of the Palace of Justice in Baabda near the presidential palace.
But anti-government protesters have dominated Beirut’s squares and streets for more than a week, with calls on social media to build momentum and draw even bigger crowds.
There is international support for the protests in Lebanon. A senior US State Department official, quoted by Reuters, supported the right of the Lebanese to demonstrate peacefully and demand economic reforms.
The British Embassy in Lebanon tweeted that the “legitimate frustrations of Lebanon’s protesters should be heard and reforms enacted urgently.”