Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Tens of thousands march in Lebanon's Sunday of Unity

On Saturday, the largest counter-protest saw thousands of the president’s supporters head to Baabda Palace

Tens of thousands of people gathered in squares across Lebanon on Sunday as they answered a call for a million-person march of unity to mark day 17 of the nationwide uprising against the government.

By early afternoon, thousands had gathered in Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre with more flooding into the squares as the evening approached.

Even in small villages such as Kafa Roummane outside Nabatieh in the south had a rally of several hundred despite reports of threats and intimidation.

The area is dominated politically by Hezbollah and their allied Amal Movement, but it has strong communist party history. It was once nicknamed Kafa Moscow.

Even as the size of the protests have ebbed and flowed across Lebanon, Tripoli in the north has stayed consistent.

On a quiet Saturday with relatively smaller protests elsewhere, tens of thousands crowded the city’s Al Nour square, dancing to loud music and chanting slogans against the government.

“We are the popular revolution, you are the civil war,” people chanted in unison on Saturday night.

Meanwhile, the largest demonstration so far in support of the president took place near Baabda Palace on Saturday afternoon.

Thousands of supporters from the Free Patriotic Movement gathering to show their backing of Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, caretaker foreign minister and party head Gebran Bassil.

"We're here to say to Aoun that we love you and renew our trust in you," Hiyam Khairat said at the rally.

Wearing a shirt emblazoned with Mr Aoun's face, George Barbar said he had driven from northern Lebanon to show his support.

"If people don't join hands with the president, there will be no Lebanon," Mr Barbar said.

Mr Bassil, who has not been seen in public since the start of the protests, attended and the president made a surprise speech.

Mr Aoun appeared on screen, arms raised flashing the victory gesture.

“I am with you and I love all of you, and all of you means all of you,” Mr Aoun told his supporters, in a twist on the popular "all of them means all of them" chant demanding all politicians and leaders step down.

He said he had a three-step plan to fix the country – end corruption, improve the economy and build a civil, not sectarian state.

Mr Aoun gave no detail on how he would reverse decades of decline and intransigence on these issues.

Mr Bassil told the crowd: "We have warned our partners that we will get to this stage and we are here to tell [the people who protested] that we are with them and let’s continue together."

He has been singled out by protesters across the country and is accused of being one of the main stumbling blocks to passing needed economic reforms.

There is no word yet on the formation of a new government after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned last Tuesday.

But sources say a major hold-up is whether Mr Bassil will have a position in the administration.

Protesters in Martyrs' Square in central Beirut expressed mixed feelings about Mr Aoun’s address.

“We were here on the street for over two weeks," said Tina Hujeiry, 17, who lives in Baabda.

"We were like, 'Michel Aoun where are you?' He says he is the father of all of us but he’s not showing us that."

Since protests started on October 17, the president had spoken publicly only twice, in brief, pre-recorded televised speeches.

Lebanon's near-daily protests have brought people from across the country demanding an end to decades of corruption, poor service provision and inefficient government.

While there is no leadership to the movement, and therefore no set list of demands, a common call is for political leaders to resign and the formation of a technocratic government to pass economic reforms needed to avert looming financial collapse.

Protesters also want and a new non-sectarian electoral law to hold an early vote.

While Mr Hariri's government has resigned, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Mr Aoun appear unlikely to follow.

Mr Hariri is favourite to be asked to lead the new administration that may be to some extent a technical government.

Mr Aoun's office said on Saturday that that he would set the date for formal consultations with political parties on the next prime minister-designate “soon”.

"The challenges in front of the future government require a rapid but not hasty approach to the designation process because rushing in such cases can have harmful consequences," the presidential office said.

Protesters in Beirut said they hoped the Lebanese would remain united in their rejection of their leaders.

“Tripoli, Beirut, one hand,” chanted Rami Geiadeh, 17, one of a group of young men from Tripoli who joined the Beirut rally.

Rami said he hoped that “the Sunni, Christians and Shia will rise up together and the government will fall”.

Some participants said they were unsure of what would come next.

“We are like a bus that has filled up with people that suddenly realise there is no driver,” Walid Qassem, a retired marketing manager. “We need more organisation.”

On supporters of President Aoun, Mr Qassem said: “They are much more organised than us. We are alone and they are backed by Hezbollah."

He was torn between the desire to see all politicians resign and the fear of chaos.

“We need a government of technocrats followed by elections to renew Parliament and then politicians can really work towards the most important goal, which is fighting corruption,” Mr Qassem said.

As he spoke, a group of excited young men walked by, chanting a popular insult against Mr Bassil.

“You see, I am against these kinds of insults,” Mr Qassem said. “We need to unite to start building something new.”

Updated: November 4, 2019 12:12 PM

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