BAABDA, Lebanon (AFP) — Lebanon’s president Sunday called on citizens to unite behind reforms, after more than two weeks of nationwide anti-graft protests that brought down the government.
Embattled President Michel Aoun addressed thousands of his supporters thronging the road outside the presidential palace, ahead of more mass anti-government protests planned in Beirut in the afternoon.
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.
In a live televised address beamed to his fans and around the nation, Aoun called on supporters and protesters alike to rally behind a plan for reforms.
“I call on you all to unite,” the Maronite Christian state leader said, warning against having “one protest against another.”
The 84-year-old president 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, leaning on a pulpit inside the palace in the town of Baabda outside Beirut.
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 palace, an AFP correspondent saw Aoun’s supporters chanting, some brandishing the orange-colored 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, referring to the army’s youngest-ever commander in chief during the civil conflict.
Aoun’s supporters said they backed the overall demands of protesters nationwide, 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.
“There has been corruption in the state for 30 years,” she said. “The president isn’t responsible. He’s trying to fight against graft.”
Along with its allies including powerful Shiite terror movement Hezbollah, Aoun’s political party holds the majority in parliament.
The FPM is now headed by his son-in-law Gibran Bassil, who has emerged as one of the most reviled figures in the protests. Before the cabinet resigned on Tuesday, Bassil was foreign minister.
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.
On Tuesday, prime minister Saad Hariri — a Sunni Muslim — announced his government would be stepping down.
But it is still unclear what a new cabinet will look like, and if it will include independent technocrats as demanded by demonstrators.
After around two weeks of closure, banks and some schools re-opened this week.
But protesters have vowed to press ahead with their demands and — after numbers dwindled amid rain in recent days — were set to make a broad stand on Sunday afternoon in Beirut’s main square.
On Saturday night, thousands of anti-government protesters had flocked together in the impoverished northern city of Tripoli to keep the popular movement alive.
Several said they had traveled 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 neighboring Syria.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.