A new wave of protests paralysed Lebanon after President Michel Aoun enraged demonstrators urging them to end a revolt against corruption and cronyism in the political establishment.
A month after nationwide protests started, Lebanon is in political and economic crisis with no sign of leaders agreeing on a new government to replace the outgoing cabinet of Saad al-Hariri, who quit as premier on October 29.
Banks, closed for half of October, closed again this week over staff security concerns. Most transfers out of the country are blocked and with US currency scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound is weakening on the black market.
Protests are overwhelmingly peaceful, tensions surfaced since Tuesday when Aoun gave a televised interview in which he said Lebanon faced “catastrophe” if the revolt did not stop.
After he spoke, protesters took to the streets with one shot and killed after an altercation with soldiers at a roadblock south of Beirut.
The man was a follower of Walid Jumblatt, a veteran Druze politician and former civil war militia leader, who urged supporters to remain calm.
Protesters blocked roads on Wednesday.
Fights broke out in the predominantly Christian area Jal al-Dib near Beirut, where protesters faced off with people including Aoun supporters angered by roadblocks, footage broadcast by the LBC television channel showed.
Aoun’s interview included remarks angering protesters, including a comment understood to mean him telling them to emigrate if they didn’t like the way the country was run.
A 33-year-old protester, Linda Boulos Mikari, said Aoun spoke to protesters as if they were children. “Respect us a little,” she said. “Respect people sleeping in the streets for a month.”
“The reaction was spontaneous. People felt we have to ramp up the pressure. We will not stop,” said Joelle Petrakian at a blocked highway in central Beirut.
NO SIGN OF GOVERNMENT
Despite the economic crisis, the worst since the 1975-90 civil war, leaders have not been able to agree a new cabinet. Lebanon’s dollar bonds slumped further on Wednesday.
The powerful, Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah and its Shi’ite ally Amal want Hariri to be prime minister again.
Hariri, aligned with Gulf Arab states and the West, will only return as prime minister if he is able to form a cabinet of specialists capable of salvaging the situation and able to attract international support.
“We accept government should reflect a political balance, but through specialists, not traditional candidates of politicians that usually come into government,” a source close to Hariri said.
In the interview, Aoun said Hariri was hesitant about being prime minister again. He said a purely technocratic government, as demanded by many protesters, could not govern and should include politicians.
Hezbollah and Amal believe Hariri aims to keep Hezbollah out of government, a source familiar with the two groups’ view said. Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist group by the United States.
DOLLARS “UNDER THE PILLOW”
Aoun said on Twitter economic conditions were deteriorating, although the start of oil and gas exploration – expected soon — would improve the situation gradually.
The Lebanese pound weakened further on the black market. Dollars were offered at 1 850 pounds compared to 1 820 on Tuesday, an exchange dealer said, 23% weaker than the official rate. The weakening pound led some shops to hike prices of imported goods.
Aoun met French diplomatic envoy Christophe Farnaud, who delivered a message from President Emmanuel Macron affirming France’s readiness to help Lebanon in the current circumstances, the Lebanese presidency said.
To avoid capital flight, commercial banks imposed curbs on financial transfers abroad and US dollar withdrawals. The authorities did not announce capital controls.
Aoun called on Lebanese not to rush to banks, saying money was safe. He said Lebanese were keeping dollars “under the pillow”, referring to money kept at home.