Lebanon's president urges citizens to unite behind reforms

Baabda (Lebanon) (AFP) –


Lebanon's president called Sunday for citizens to unite behind reforms, ahead of fresh protests two weeks into a nationwide street movement that has brought down the government.

Unprecedented cross-sectarian demonstrations have gripped Lebanon since October 17, demanding a complete overhaul of a political system deemed inefficient and corrupt.

The cabinet stepped down on Tuesday, but protesters have said this was not enough and pledged to meet for another demonstration Sunday afternoon in Beirut.

On Sunday, embattled President Michel Aoun addressed Lebanese in a televised speech as thousands of his supporters thronged the road outside his presidential palace.

"I call on you all to unite," the 84-year-old Maronite Christian president said.

He said a roadmap had been drawn up to tackle corruption, redress the economy, and put together a civil government.

"It won't be easy, and we want your efforts," he said.

A proposed tax on calls via free phone applications such as Whatsapp triggered protests last month.

But they soon morphed into a huge nationwide movement to denounce a raft of woes including a lack of basic services, a failing economy, and rampant sectarianism.

The resignation of the cabinet was a first victory, but protesters have vowed to press ahead with their other demands.

After numbers dwindled amid rain in recent days, they were set to make a broad stand on Sunday afternoon in the capital.

- 'Revolution is feminist' -

In Beirut, hundreds of men and women took part in a feminist march from the national museum towards Martyr's Square, the nerve centre of the capital's protests.

"Our revolution is feminist," read a banner carried by marchers.

"Speak up, end male chauvinism," protesters chanted to the rhythm of drums.

Sarah Bukhari, 28, said she was there to demand equality.

"It's so important there is real social justice and that women's demands be heard," she said.

Protesters also took to the streets in other parts of the country including the southern city of Tyre, the National News Agency said.

It is still unclear what a new cabinet will look like, and if it will include independent technocrats as demanded by demonstrators.

Protesters have called for an end to Aoun's tenure, as well as drastic change to a political system dominated by the same figures and families since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

"All of them means all of them," has become a popular chant calling for all political leaders to step down.

Outside the presidential palace earlier on Sunday, Aoun's supporters waved flags and some brandished the orange-coloured banners of his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement.

"We are here, General. We won't abandon you as long as we live," one poster read.

- 'Sincere man' -

Aoun's supporters said they backed the overall demands of anti-graft protesters, but insisted the president was the only man able to bring about reforms.

"General Aoun is a reformist and sincere man -- not corrupt nor a thief," said one supporter who gave her name as Diana.

"He's trying to fight against graft," she said.

Along with its allies including powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, Aoun's political party holds the majority in parliament.

It is headed by his son-in-law and outgoing foreign minister Gibran Bassil, who has emerged as one of the most reviled figures in the protests.

After around two weeks of closure, banks and some schools re-opened in recent days, before the demonstrations briefly petered out.

On Saturday night, thousands of anti-government protesters flocked together in the impoverished northern city of Tripoli to keep the popular movement alive.

Several said they had travelled to the Sunni-majority city from other parts of the country, inspired by the after-dark street parties that earned it the title "bride of the revolution".

More than 25 percent of Lebanese citizens live in poverty, the World Bank says.

The country's economic growth has stalled in recent years in the wake of repeated political crises, compounded by an eight-year civil war in neighbouring Syria.