BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters returned to the streets on Sunday to demand an overhaul of the political system while others turned out to support President Michel Aoun. The two opposing groups descended to the squares that represented them according to their political beliefs.
Turnout for the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporting President Michel Aoun was enormous after buses transported supporters and members of the FPM to the area near the presidential palace. During this rally, Gebran Bassil, leader of the FPM, spoke for the first time since the eruption of popular protests in Lebanon and responded to those who accused him of corruption.
There was also the arena of the popular movement that has been consistent for 18 days in Beirut, Tripoli, Kfarerman, Tire, Zahle and other areas. People moved to the protest squares spontaneously, rejecting Aoun’s attempt to position himself as the guarantor of the protest movement and its anti-corruption drive.
They blamed Aoun, who preferred, according to one activist who spoke to Arab News, “to address the supporters of the FPM with a live speech from the presidential palace and did not bother to talk to us even once in this way, proving that he is not the father of everyone as he has claimed since he came to the presidency.”
The difference between the two arenas was clear. The rally that supported President Aoun was full of veteran loyalists who have supported him since 1989 when he was the head of a transitional government at Baabda Palace, and they brought with them their children and grandchildren.
This prompted the head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), Walid Jumblatt, to comment in a tweet: “We are back to square one with empty populist talk going back 30 years.”
One of the activists, called Zenno, said on his Twitter account: “I did not want to go to Martyrs’ Square today, but after Gebran Bassil’s speech I decided to go with my family to the square to show that Lebanon is bigger than your party.”
Elias Sawaya, another activist, tweeted: “In 1989, I went to the presidential palace in Baabda with my three children. They emigrated from Lebanon. I will go down to Martyrs’ today. Maybe they will come back.” This is an indication that this arena represents the pulse, pain and demands of young people.
The roads leading to the presidential palace were filled in the morning with supporters of the FPM at the invitation of its leadership. They raised the Lebanese flag, banners of the FPM and pictures of President Aoun and Bassil. The slogan “A nation led by Aoun and Nasrallah will not kneel down” was written on one of the banners.
Supporters chanted slogans including “Our president will stay and the regime will not fall,” and “We love Bassil.” Some supporters called Aoun “Sayyidna” (Our Master), a title given in Lebanon to the Maronite patriarch. The slogans appeared to be a response to the popular protests, despite the FPM leadership’s assertion that the rally was “not directed against the other street.”
Aoun appeared on the screens that were installed in the streets, raising the banner of the FPM, and addressed his supporters with the phrase “O great people of Lebanon,” which is a phrase he used 30 years ago.
He said: “There are many squares. Needy people, whose rights are missing and who lost confidence in their country, revolted. Here lies the problem that must be solved by restoring the confidence of the people in their country.”
Aoun added: “There are many arenas, but no arena should be against the other. I invite everyone to be united. Corruption does not go easily because it has been rooted for decades.”
Aoun recalled his three points of action which he announced last Thursday: Fighting corruption, promoting the economy, and establishing a civil state. “This cannot be achieved easily in the presence of many obstructers,” he said.
Bassil, who had joined the protesters amid shouts of welcome, said: “We had warned our partners that we would get to this stage and people were ahead of us. We, like you, rose up against injustice.”
He described the criticism as “injustice” and said: “If you accuse everyone of corruption, both the corrupt and good ones, we will not be able to hold anyone accountable, and we are not all corrupt. The corrupt are the ones who built their palaces from the money of the state and the people.”
“There are difficult days ahead,” Bassil said. “The traitors are few in our ranks. In a big crisis, two things appear: Fear, which we can understand, and treason, which we cannot understand and has no justification.”
It was the biggest counter protest to the massive wave of demonstrations that have gripped Lebanon since Oct. 17 and which have included Aoun’s removal among its demands.
The Minister of Defense in the Lebanese caretaker government, Elias Bou Saab, who participated in the demonstration, confirmed in a statement that “no one can put a ‘veto’ against us, and in turn do not put any a ‘veto’ against anyone. Whoever puts a ‘veto’ against us is the loser.”
This is in reference to the controversy over who will be the prime minister-designate in light of the refusal of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to accept Bassil as a member of the future government and the insistence of Hezbollah and Aoun that he (Bassil) should be part of any future government.
It appeared that what happened in the vicinity of the presidential palace, and allowing supporters of the FPM to approach the area that was forbidden on the other street, provoked thousands of Lebanese from all classes to take to the opposite street.
“Bassil says he is not corrupt, Nasrallah says his group is not corrupt and supporters of Speaker Nabih Berri say he is not corrupt,” said a woman carrying the Lebanese flag with her children in Beirut. “So who is the corrupt? Is it poor and hungry people?“
“What is required after the fall of the government is the formation of a transitional government that should hold early parliamentary elections on the basis of a fair law,” said a Communications ministry employee participating in the protests in Riad Al-Solh Square. “Otherwise, it has no meaning and is mere procrastination.”
“The majority of the protesters are young people and their demands must be met,” said a retired public administration official. “They demand employment opportunities, housing loans and an election law outside the sectarian restriction. We have more than 50,000 university graduates who only find work if they get intermediation from politicians.”
A young man in Martyrs’ Square said: “What was said in Baabda was heard by our parents 30 years ago but did not work. They have not yet understood that we do not want their reforms because we do not trust them. We want them to leave power, stop patching. Is there a country in the world where the people who looted vote on a law to recover what they looted? We are trying to build a real state, that’s what we want them to understand. They address us with speeches and promises of reform. Do they think we are stupid and without dignity to this extent?”
A protester who came from Tripoli to Martyrs’ Square said: “We have one pain in Beirut, the southern suburbs and Tripoli. Let us raise one voice.”