Lebanon’s President Aoun ready to meet protesters after 8 days of unrest

Lebanon’s President Aoun ready to meet protesters after 8 days of unrest

Protesters were disappointed by his speech; more demonstrators arrived, sticking even more to their demands, including that the entire government must step down – including Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun addressed Lebanese protesters after largely remaining silent since anti-government demonstrations started eight days ago. Aoun expressed his readiness to meet with representatives of the protestors and listen to their demands in order to discuss options for solutions.

Aoun assured them that the reforms presented by Prime Minister Saad Hariri are the first step to "save Lebanon from financial collapse," and that it was thanks to the protests that the reforms were able to pass. He also promised to recover public money that was stolen by officials, according to Lebanese broadcaster MTV.

He stressed that Lebanon is a country of partnership and democracy, and that "the president of the republic needs the cooperation of everyone," adding that sectarianism is the basis of all problems in the country.

The president claimed that many parties felt that they could do what they wanted and the people would remain silent.

Aoun agreed that the system needs change, but that this change must happen in the constitutional institutions and not in the public squares, according to Al Mayadeen TV.

The Lebanese leader also expressed his readiness to get rid of legal immunity for ministers and members of parliament, and to establish a special court for crimes committed concerning public funds. He mentioned that he is the one in the government who demands the return of stolen public funds and who presented a law to get these funds back.

Aoun said that he respects the right to freedom of expression, but stressed that freedom of movement is also a right that must be respected, referring to efforts by protesters to block roads.

According to MTV, protesters in various locations who were listening to Aoun's speech were disappointed by his address; the number of people at demonstrations began to climb after the speech, with demonstrators sticking even more to their demands.

After the speech, young protestors used the slogan "No confidence. No negotiation. Resign." Protestors chanted “Kullun yaani Kullun,” meaning "all of them means all of them," to emphasize that the entire government must step down.

The Sabaa (Seven) Party, which describes itself as a "modern, unconventional Lebanese party to create new leaders and confront a corrupt political class," warned before Aoun's speech that if he does not announce that the government has resigned, then the "end of his speech will be the great revolution."

"The president's speech is an insult to all citizens. Revolution!" stated Sabaa after the speech, calling on Lebanese people to come in the millions to demonstrations, according to MTV.

Aoun is a political ally of the Hezbollah terrorist organization. Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of the movement, has spoken out against calls by protesters for the government to step down – including Hezbollah.

Many protestors assembled in areas with large screens to watch Aoun's address, according to the Lebanese National News Agency.

Head of the Lebanese Kataeb Party MP Sami Gemayel said that a settlement in 2016 that allowed Michel Aoun to be elected as president opened the door for Hezbollah to take control of the country, according to Asharq Al-Awsat.

"The current political class is covering for Hezbollah and is implementing the party’s policies, whether in defending it at international arenas or justifying its internal policies,” said Gemayel.

After two explosive drones fell in Beirut near sites belonging to Hezbollah, Aoun called the drone attacks a “declaration of war.”

A source close to Hezbollah told MTV that Hezbollah is waiting to see how the protestors respond to Hariri's reform suggestions, and is consideringthe possibility to intervene in support of Aoun and Hariri if the protestors do not respond positively.

Protestors in Beirut have been heard singing in solidarity with the southern city of Sour, where protesters have reportedly been suppressed by men affiliated with the pro-Hezbollah Amal movement and Hezbollah.

In Nabatiyeh, members of the municipal police headed by Hezbollah attacked protesters and beat them to keep them behind barriers that they had set up until the Lebanese Army intervened, according to Al-Arabiya.

Messages have circulated through WhatsApp warning people not to join the demonstrations since “international actors” are behind the protests, according to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“There are a lot of attempts to get people out of the street, but they didn't work,” said activists in Nabatieh.

Laure Suleiman, the director of the Lebanese National News Agency, was fired and replaced by a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by Aoun. Demonstrators claimed that the move was done because the president doesn't want the agency to cover the protests.

Lebanon has one of the highest rates of public debt in the world relative to the size of its economy at 150%, according to The Wall Street Journal. The unemployment rate among those under 35 is 37%.

Groups organizing the protest began work on Thursday to issue a list of unified living demands, with the first being fighting corruption, according to Al Mayadeen.

Banks remained closed for a sixth day and all schools and universities remained closed on Thursday. Many roads were blocked despite efforts by the army to unblock them.

Reuters and Rachel Wolf contributed to this report.