BEIRUT (Reuters) – Protesters barricaded main roads across Lebanon on Wednesday after President Michel Aoun enraged demonstrators by urging them to end their revolt against corruption and cronyism in the political establishment.
A demonstrator walks past a closed road by burning tires during ongoing anti-government protests, in Khaldeh, Lebanon November 13, 2019. REUTERS/Alaa Kanaan
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, heightening tensions in a country trapped in a deep political and economic crisis.
The man was a follower of Walid Jumblatt, a veteran Druze politician and former civil war militia leader, who has urged his supporters to remain calm.
Protesters said Aoun’s comments, including a warning that the revolt risked “catastrophe”, showed leaders were out of touch.
“It is as if they are detached from reality, as if the people have no opinion, no voice,” said Marwan al-Amine, one of dozens of protesters gathering near the presidential palace.
In a remark widely understood to mean that Aoun was telling protesters to emigrate if they didn’t like how the country was run, the president said that if decent people could not be found to lead the protest movement they should leave the country.
A 33-year-old protester, Linda Boulos Mikari, blocking a road in Beirut’s Nahr al-Kalb area, said Aoun had talked to the protesters as if they were children. “Respect us a little,” she said. “Respect this people sleeping in the streets for a month.”
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.
“The reaction (to Aoun) was very spontaneous. People felt we have to ramp up the pressure … We will not stop,” said Joelle Petrakian, protesting at a blocked highway in central Beirut.
Several dozen protesters watched by troops and police sat blocking the normally busy road. Nearby lay smouldering debris ignited during protests overnight triggered by Aoun’s remarks.
In his interview, Aoun indicated there was no breakthrough in talks over forming a new government to replace Saad al-Hariri’s coalition cabinet. Hariri, who quit on Oct. 29, was hesitant about being prime minister again, he said.
Aoun also said a purely technocratic government, as demanded by many protesters, would not be able to govern Lebanon and so it should include politicians.
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.”
Caretaker Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri called the head of the army and the police and stressed the need to protect citizens and ensure the safety of the protesters.
DOLLARS “UNDER THE PILLOW”
Aoun said on Twitter economic conditions were deteriorating further due to country’s current circumstances, although the start of oil and gas exploration – expected soon — would help improve things gradually.
Aoun met French diplomatic envoy Christophe Farnaud, who delivered a message from President Emmanuel Macron affirming France’s readiness to help Lebanon in the current circumstances, the Lebanese presidency said.
Commercial banks, seeking to avoid capital flight, have been imposing tight restrictions on financial transfers out of Lebanon and U.S. 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 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 kept at home.
Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, 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.
But the heavily armed group Hezbollah and its ally Amal believe Hariri aims mainly to keep Hezbollah out of government, a source familiar with the two groups’ view said on Sunday.
Iran-backed Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist group by the United States.
The main road in Khalde, the scene of Tuesday’s shooting, was blocked with burning tyres lain by mourners.
“He is Lebanon’s martyr … his blood is the responsibility of everyone occupying a post from the president on down,” said a demonstrator. “Today, here, it is civil disobedience.”
“We won’t back down at all, especially since we are facing authorities who don’t see and don’t hear,” said a 50-year-old protester, Atef, in the southern city of Sidon.
Reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry; Additional reporting by Reuters television, Editing by William Maclean and Toby Chopra