Main roads across Lebanon were closed on Wednesday in fresh protests after President Michel Aoun infuriated demonstrators by urging them to end their revolt against corruption among the country’s ruling elite.
Hundreds marched towards the palace of President Michel Aoun in the town of Baabda outside the capital, where security forces laid coils of barbed wire across the access road.
Aoun had said on television the previous night that Lebanese who did not see any decent person in power should "emigrate" -- a comment that, despite the presidency scrambling to clarify it, immediately sent protesters onto the streets.
His remarks in a television interview late on Tuesday ignited demonstrations overnight in which a protester was shot and killed after an altercation with Lebanese soldiers at a roadblock south of Beirut.
The killing marked a bloody twist to the crisis that has gripped Lebanon for nearly a month, escalating tensions in a country ensnared in a deep political and economic crisis.
Protesters have been demanding the ouster of a generation of politicians seen by demonstrators as inefficient and corrupt, in a movement that has been largely peaceful.
Tuesday’s victim was a follower of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, a veteran Druze politician and former civil war militia leader, who has urged his supporters to remain calm.
Schools and banks were closed for a second straight day. They have been shut for much of the four weeks since the start of the protests against political leaders seen as venal and unable to rescue Lebanon from rising poverty and unemployment.
One banker said all transfers were frozen for now.
One activist, Antoine Saad, manning a roadblock in the village of Jal al-Deeb, argued that the president "continues to speak to his people in a belittling manner".
"He needs to know the people don't want him anymore and he needs to go."
Several dozen protesters watched by troops and police sat blocking the normally busy road. Nearby lay smoldering debris ignited during protests overnight triggered by Aoun’s remarks.
“Aoun ignites the intifada (uprising),” ran the front page headline in the daily Ennahar newspaper.
In his interview, Aoun indicated there was no breakthrough in talks over forming a new government to replace Saad Hariri’s coalition cabinet. Hariri, who quit on October 29, was hesitant about being prime minister again, he said.
Addressing protesters in his interview, he said, “If you continue in this way, you will strike Lebanon and your interests ... If they keep going, there is a catastrophe. If they stop, there is still room for (us) to fix things.”
As Aoun’s interview was ending, protesters blocked several main roads across Lebanon, some with burning tires. Tensions flared in Beirut late into the night. In the Cola district near Beirut, dozens of men pelted stones at soldiers and a tank.
Hariri called the head of the army and the police and stressed the need to protect citizens and ensure the safety of the protesters. He called Jumblatt and conveyed his condolence, his Twitter feed said.
Dollars “under the pillow”
Commercial banks, seeking to avoid capital flight, have been imposing tight restrictions on financial transfers out of Lebanon and US dollar withdrawals. The authorities have not however announced official capital controls.
Banks, which were closed for half of October during the protests, shut their doors on Tuesday and again on Wednesday in strike action by bank employees who are concerned about security risks posed by depositors demanding their money and protesters.
Aoun called on the Lebanese not to rush to the banks, saying their money was safe. He also said Lebanese were keeping dollars “under the pillow”, referring to money withdrawn from banks and kept at home.
The United Nations urged Lebanon to form a competent new government better able to seek international aid and warned the country was in a critical financial and economic situation.
Hariri wants to be prime minister of a technocratic cabinet that he believes would be better placed to secure urgently needed international financial support, political sources have said, according to Reuters.
Hezbollah and its ally Amal believe Hariri aims mainly to keep Hezbollah out of government, a senior source familiar with the two groups’ view said on Sunday.
“A technocrat government cannot define the policy of the country ... and I back forming a government that is half political and half technocrat,” Aoun said in his interview. “I met Hariri and I found him hesitant between yes and no.”
Protesters are demanding a government made up of technocrats that would get immediately to work on the necessary reforms to address the worst economic and financial crisis Lebanon is passing through in decades.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist group by the United States. On Monday, its leader said talks were continuing over the new government and Hezbollah wanted to leave open the way for an agreement.
Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, said he was awaiting answers before calling formal consultations with MPs to designate the next prime minister. The delay has further enraged the protesters and drawn criticism from rivals, who accuse him of stalling and violating constitutional norms.
When asked about the protesters and their demands, Aoun said: "I invited them for a dialogue but did not hear back from them."
He urged protesters to go back to their homes because demonstrations are blocking work in the country.
In central Beirut, a protester said that, if the head of state wanted to speak to the leaderless movement, a lot of people would be making their way to him.
"The president asked to meet representatives of the revolution, whereas it's all of us who are responsible for it," he told local television.
"So we're all going to head to Baabda."