Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 September 2020

Lebanon unrest: high profile figures call for Michel Aoun to quit

Civil society issues call for change of president, government and parliament speaker after protests over economy

Prominent Lebanese civilians have called for President Michel Aoun to resign to prevent “complete socio-economic collapse”, after two nights of protests over the currency’s decline.

Lebanon is undergoing one of its worst economic crises since colonial powers carved the country out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. The crisis sparked renewed demonstrations that partly turned violent in Beirut and Tripoli this month.

A declaration signed by more than 100 independent figures said a replacement for Mr Aoun should be drawn from the peaceful component of the country's protest movement “to halt the collapse of Lebanon”, which they attributed to the president’s “political choices and positions”.

The declaration, an advanced copy of which was sent to The National, amounts to a rare, cross-community move against Mr Aoun, 85.

The Maronite former army chief refers to himself as “father of all the Lebanese”. Under Lebanon’s sectarian quota system, the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni and the parliamentary speaker Shiite.

The signatories, including top jurists, business people, rights campaigners, journalists and literary figures, said Mr Aoun’s resignation would need to be accompanied by a new government and the replacement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to bring “hope to Lebanese citizens”.

A warlord during the 1975-1990 civil war, Mr Berri was installed as speaker 28 years ago by the late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad when Lebanon was under the sway of Damascus.

“The Lebanese Republic is condemned to total paralysis until all the symbols of corruption are definitively removed from power,” the declaration said.

Publisher Jamil Mroueh signed the declaration, as did novelist Jabbour Douaihy, American University of Beirut professor Ridwan Al Sayyed and Harvard professor Christiane Ferran.

Its signatories also include Lina Hamdan, founder of the Beirut Forum, an umbrella group of civil organisations, Selim Muzannar, a jeweller at the vanguard of a movement among Lebanon’s business community to support civil society in recent years, and Micky Chebli, a veteran banker-turned-philanthropist.

Jabbour Douaihy, a leading member of Lebanon's intelligentsia. Mr Douaihy is among a group of top civil figures demanding the removal of President Michel Aoun. Photo by Kheridine Mabrouk
Jabbour Douaihy, a leading member of Lebanon's intelligentsia. Mr Douaihy is among a group of top civil figures demanding the removal of President Michel Aoun. Photo by Kheridine Mabrouk

The signatories said they supported an earlier declaration by 27 Maronites who called for the removal of President Aoun but only through peaceful means. Geneva hedge fund magnate Philippe Jabre, jurist Shukri Sader, and law professor Chibli Mallat, author of Philosophy of Nonviolence, signed the Maronite statement, as well as Fares Soueid, scion of a nationalist political family and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah.

Lebanon’s immensely wealthy Maronite Church has tacitly backed Mr Aoun since a deal between Hezbollah and former prime minister Saad Al Hariri brought Mr Aoun to the presidency in 2016.

But the Maronite patriarch, Beshara Rai, made rare criticism of the government on Sunday for allowing what he termed saboteurs last week to disrupt demonstrators who he said had legitimate grievances.

He told a Sunday sermon that the government, the most closely tied with Hezbollah since the Iranian-backed group was founded in the 1980s, should confront such saboteurs but also respond to the street’s demands for reform.

Mr Rai was referring to looting in central Beirut after Hezbollah supporters descended on the protests and exchanged sectarian insults with Sunni demonstrators on June 6.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab, left, with President Michel Aoun, during a cabinet meeting. Reuters
Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab, left, with President Michel Aoun, during a cabinet meeting. Reuters

A sharp fall in the Lebanese currency to 5,000 pounds against the US dollar sparked demonstrations in parts of the country the same day, six months after the authorities crushed a peaceful uprising demanding the removal of the entire political class.

The prime minister, Hassan Diab, blamed the currency’s fall on what he termed manipulators, and hinted at an unspecified conspiracy to bring him down.

The Lebanese currency was trading at 4,000 pounds to the dollar at the start of this month.

The pound’s value was aligned for decades with an official peg 1,501 pounds to the dollar, which collapsed late last year, ahead of the government defaulting on $30 billion (Dh110.2bn) of foreign debt.

Lebanese soldiers in Beirut on June 6, 2020. Reuters
Lebanese soldiers in Beirut on June 6, 2020. Reuters

More Shiites, the bedrock of support for Hezbollah, joined the demonstrators in recent days. In the mostly Shiite city of Baalbek, shops closed this week in protest over the deteriorating economy.

But the interests of many of the Shiite demonstrators and the rest of the protesters seem to diverge.

The Shiite component has focused on demanding the removal of central bank governor Riad Salameh.

Slogans by the rest of the demonstrators, such as “all of them means all of them”, indicated a dismantling of the entire political class they blame for Lebanon’s descent into financial ruin.

Mr Hariri’s father, the late statesman Rafik Hariri, brought Mr Salameh, a former banker at Merrill Lynch, back from the diaspora in the 1990s to become head of Banque du Liban, the central bank.

Mr Salameh has become a bete noire for Hezbollah in the past decade for leading Lebanon’s compliance with US sanctions, mainly against two local banks linked with the Shiite group.

The political deal that brought Mr Aoun to power stipulated that he would not touch Mr Salameh. But the uprising forced Mr Hariri to step down in October, leaving Mr Salameh without any active political backing in the government.

A woman looks at Nejmeh square in downtown Beirut in October 2019.  The Lebanese army blocked the square to prevent demonstrators from reaching the area, where parliament is situated. Reuters
A woman looks at Nejmeh square in downtown Beirut in October 2019.  The Lebanese army blocked the square to prevent demonstrators from reaching the area, where parliament is situated. Reuters

The government pushed for central bank vice-governorship appointments last week that could undermine Mr Salameh, prompting the strongest criticism yet from Mr Hariri, who retains his position at the top of Lebanon's Sunni political hierarchy despite Hezbollah’s promotion of Mr Diab.

Mr Hariri said the appointments had only worsened the country's chances of securing a rescue from international financial organisations.

The political economy of Lebanon since independence in the 1940s has been largely the intellectual legacy of Lebanese banker and statesman Michel Chiha.

Chiha, who died in the 1950s, sought to harness the country’s sectarian diversity and make Lebanon an exception in a region where military dictatorships were on the verge of smothering potential democracies across the Middle East.

He championed the Lebanese system of “consensual democracy”. But the system was underpinned by a laissez faire economic model he promoted that made Lebanon the financial and business hub of the Middle East.

Lebanon partly regained its glamour after the civil war, but only till the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, who was well connected around the world.

The prominent Lebanese civilians said on Sunday that they would be willing to work “in as broad a national, Arab and international framework as possible” to respond positively to the “ongoing Lebanese revolution”.

Highly accomplished in their own fields, they are not lacking in connections. But a deepening slump in the economy could make it hard for anyone to extract Lebanon from its crisis.

Updated: June 15, 2020 12:29 PM

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