Lebanese President offers to meet protesters

Lebanese President Michel Aoun offers to meet protesters demanding a complete overhaul of the political system.

Elad Benari ,

Michel Aoun
Michel Aoun

Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Thursday offered to meet with protesters whose week-old mobilization to demand a complete overhaul of the political system has brought the country to a standstill.

However, his first speech since the start of the unprecedented protest movement was met with disdain by the demonstrators who see him and the entire political class as part of the problem, not the solution, according to AFP.

The protests were initially started in response to what has become known as the “WhatsApp Tax”, which would have seen a 20-cent daily fee being charged for messaging app users. The tax was later scrapped but the protests have continued and have morphed into a cross-sectarian street mobilization against a political system seen as corrupt and broken.

In his speech, Aoun told protesters he was "ready to meet your representatives... to hear your demands."

He suggested that a government reshuffle might be needed, an option that other leaders have hinted they would consider -- but which would fall far short of demonstrators' demand that the entire government quit.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday presented a package of reforms, including cutting ministerial salaries, but the rallies have continued, crippling Beirut and other major cities.

"The reform paper that was approved will be the first step to save Lebanon and remove the specter of financial and economic collapse," Aoun said on Thursday, according to AFP.

"It was your first achievement because you helped remove obstacles in front of it and it was adopted in record speed," he told the protesters.

Aoun said he respected the right of protesters to speak up but urged them to open key roads that they have blocked.

The president also echoed calls to stamp out graft in Lebanon, which ranked 138 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2018 corruption index.

"Every person who stole public money should be held accountable but it is important his sect doesn't defend him blindly," he said.

Dozens of demonstrators listening to the speech on loudspeakers outside parliament booed it, AFP reported.