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Lebanon’s Aoun Says Willing to Meet Protesters

Lebanon’s Aoun Says Willing to Meet Protesters

Thursday, 24 October, 2019 - 11:15
AP file photo of Lebanese President Michel Aoun

Lebanon's president offered Thursday to meet the protesters whose week-old mobilization demanding a complete overhaul of the political and sectarian system has brought the country to a standstill.

Michel Aoun's first speech since the start of the unprecedented protest movement was met with disdain by demonstrators who see him and the entire political class as part of the problem and not the solution.

Sparked on October 17 by a proposed tax on calls made through messaging apps, the protests have morphed into a cross-sectarian street mobilization against a political system seen as corrupt and broken.

"I am ready to meet your representatives... to hear your demands," Aoun said.

He suggested that a government reshuffle might be needed, an option that Prime Minister Saad Hariri also hinted he was open to.

"It has become necessary to review the current government situation so that the executive authority can pursue its responsibilities," Aoun said.

Hariri on Monday presented a package of reforms, including cutting ministerial salaries, but the rallies have continued, crippling Beirut and other major cities.

"The reform paper that was approved will be the first step to save Lebanon and remove the specter of financial and economic collapse," Aoun said.

"It was your first achievement because you helped remove obstacles in front of it and it was adopted in record speed," the president told the protesters.

But dozens of demonstrators listening to the speech on loudspeakers outside parliament booed it and resume their calls for an end of the current system, an AFP reporter said.

Among them, Rabah Shahrour said he was fed up with hearing the same public addresses for years.

"The street was looking for a little hope from him," he said of the president's speech.

"But sadly the president today spoke in generalities. We've being hearing these generalities for three years, and they haven't led to anything," he said.

- 'All of them to go' -

Jad al-Hajj, a mechanical engineering student, said he would also remain in the street after what he described as the president's "meaningless" speech.

"We want him to go and for this era to end -- for all of them to go, including him," he told AFP.

More than a quarter of Lebanon's population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.

Almost three decades since the end of Lebanon's civil war, political deadlock has stymied efforts to tackle mounting economic woes compounded by the eight-year civil war in neighboring Syria.

In previous days, tens of thousands have gathered all over Lebanon, with largely peaceful rallies morphing into celebrations at night.

But in central Beirut's Martyrs' Square on Thursday, numbers were much lower than in previous days.

The British embassy in Beirut joined the United States in calling on Lebanese leaders to meet the "legitimate" frustrations of citizens.

"The necessary reforms should be implemented urgently," it said on Twitter.

- 'Our basic rights' -

In his speech, Aoun said he respected the right of protesters to speak up but urged them to open up the roads.

Early Thursday morning, demonstrators blocked roads around the capital, AFP correspondents and Lebanese media reported.

Sitting on the pavement of a major east-west artery, a 30-year-old who had trained as a chef said he had been protesting since the first day.

"People think we're playing but we're actually asking for our most basic rights: water, food, electricity, healthcare, pensions, medicine, schooling," he said.

Banks, schools and universities remained closed.

The president also echoed calls in the street to stamp out graft in Lebanon, which ranked 138 out of 180 in Transparency International's 2018 corruption index.

"Every person who stole public money should be held accountable but it is important their sect doesn't defend him blindly," he said.

On Wednesday, a state prosecutor charged former prime minister Najib Mikati over corruption allegations, in a move whose timing appeared as a nod to protesters.

Mikati, 63, along with his brother, his son and a Lebanese bank have been accused of "illicit enrichment" over allegations of wrongly receiving millions of dollars in subsidized housing loans.

The former premier denies the accusations.

On Wednesday, the army deployed in the streets, sparking fears of clashes.

But protesters faced the troops chanting "peaceful, peaceful" and a video of one soldier seemingly in tears was shared widely online.

In the southern Shiite-majority city of Nabatieh, police however tried to disperse protesters by force, leaving several injured, the National News Agency said.

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