Lebanese president fails to calm protesters

1 / 2
Lebanese president Michel Aoun addressees a speech, in the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (AP)
2 / 2
Almost three decades after the end of Lebanon’s civil war, political deadlock has stymied efforts to tackle mounting economic woes. (File/AFP)
Updated 25 October 2019

Lebanese president fails to calm protesters

  • “The government cannot be changed in the squares,” said Aoun.
  • People who spoke to Arab News were unconvinced by Aoun’s appeals and promises

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.

HIGHLIGHT

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.

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. 

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

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.”


Lebanese students caught in a coronavirus no-man’s land

Medical employees on Friday prepare a patient infected with Covid-19 on a stretcher to be evacuated by helicopter to a hospital outside Paris region. (AFP)
Updated 14 min 5 sec ago

Lebanese students caught in a coronavirus no-man’s land

  • With banking rules restricting money transfers, some students want to return home because crisis may continue for months

PARIS: As the coronavirus crisis continues, and given a banking sector in Lebanon that is restricting money transfers, many Lebanese students stranded in Europe are pleading with their government to fly them home.

Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti said that anyone wishing to return must first be tested for the virus. However, tests are not readily available in four European countries in which we talked to students and diplomats. The Lebanese government has also touted plans to repatriate 20,000 citizens but this has yet to happen.
Many Lebanese students were stranded by state-imposed lockdowns.
Some want to return home because the restrictions will continue for months and they are financially struggling. Others, however, fear they might contract the virus during the journey and infect their families.
Makarram Marhaba, a third-year student studying literature and journalism at the Sorbonne in France, said she contacted the Lebanese Embassy asking to return home but has not received a decision.
“The staff at the embassy were extremely kind and recorded the information,” she said.
“Then they told me there was no procedure for repatriation and suggested I regularly check the embassy’s pages on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for any official announcements.”
She initially chose to wait in France for the pandemic and quarantine to end.
“I observed that there were quite a few people who were infected as they went through the airport,” she said.
“Therefore I chose not to endanger my family in Lebanon by possibly becoming infected on the trip.
“Now, however, they say that the lockdown could last until June and the exams might be postponed or canceled. In that case I have waited for nothing. If I get a chance to return, I will take it.”
She is also facing the prospect of financial problems if forced to remain in France for months.
“Since the beginning of the crisis, my parents have been unable to make any money transfers, not because of a lack of money but because of the banking restrictions,” said Marhaba, whose brother is also studying in France.
Richard Malha, who is in his second year of study, also chose to remain. His two brothers also live in France “We were encouraged to go home but it was not always possible,” he said.
“The polytechnic has about 40 Lebanese and Franco-Lebanese students.

If the hospitals in Lebanon are overloaded, I will further burden them and that is why it is better for me to stay in France, where I have a job and am paid.

Layal Messara, Researcher

“Whether in Lebanon or in France, we will be confined. In addition, if I return to Lebanon, there is a risk of infecting my parents, who are not young.”
Layal Messara has lived for five years in France, where she teaches pharmacy at the University of Bordeaux and carries out clinical research in hematology.
Her decision not to return to Lebanon was based on a desire to protect her own health and that of her parents.
“If the hospitals in Lebanon are overloaded, I will further burden them and that is why it is better for me to stay in France, where I have a job and am paid,” she said.
Messara chairs the Aquicèdre Association, which helps Lebanese students adjust and integrate.
“I know that a number of students want to go home because they are uncomfortably confined in cramped studios or rooms,” she said.
“They are suffering psychologically. Others are facing financial problems because their parents cannot transfer money from Lebanon due to bank restrictions or because they have lost their jobs.
“There are also students who relied on part-time jobs in France, in cafes and restaurants, and they have lost those jobs. There is a crisis group at the Lebanese Embassy trying to help them.”
Lebanon’s ambassador to France, Rami Adwan, said there are 240,000 Lebanese in France, including 4,800 students. About 1,300 people have applied to return home, including 1,000 students.
“Some are suffering psychologically because of confinement,” he said. “Many are lonely and afraid and don’t have enough food. Others told us that they are facing financial problems and no longer have money. A group ... was formed to contact those who request help.”
Adwan said that the embassy has contacted the Association of Banks in Lebanon requesting that banks allow money to be transferred to students, and asked private individuals for help.
“The Chamber of Commerce has also created an account with the embassy’s blessing,” he added. “I was amazed by the generous donations to the fund, which will allow students to support themselves for two months.”
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada, said that 550 Lebanese students in Britain have asked to return home.
“The requested tests (for the virus) are not available,” said Mortada. “We will see what the government decides.” He added that there is a plan to provide students with financial help in the form of a monthly allowance.
Lebanon’s ambassador to Spain, Hala Keyrouz, said about 400 students remain in the country. Their situation is difficult, she said, given the growing numbers of infected patients.
“About 300 students want to return to Lebanon,” she said. “No (virus) tests are available.”
Roula Nourredine, Lebanon’s ambassador in Switzerland, said that more than 300 Lebanese in the country have asked to return home.