Thousands protest in Lebanon to keep up street movement

Lebanese protesters wave the national flag during an anti-government demonstration in downtown Beirut, on 3 November 2019. AFP Photo

Thousands of Lebanese protested on Sunday to keep up a nationwide street movement that has brought down the government, hours after a mass rally to support the embattled president.

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

On Sunday evening, thousands of protesters streamed into the main square carrying lebanese flags and a flurry of inventive slogans on cardboard, an AFP correspondent said.

"Revolution," they cried to the rhythm of electronic beats in Martyrs' Square.

"All of them means all of them," they chanted, calling for political leaders from all sectarian stripes to step down.

Abir Murad, 37, had come specially from the northern city of Tripoli to take part.

"We are all united against the leaders.. who haven't changed anything in this country," she said.

"We came to say that change is now in the hands of the people."

Draped in white sheets, three demonstrators staged a mock execution of the grievances that pushed them down into the street.

Nooses around their limp necks, they bore signs referring to corruption, sectarianism, and the 1975-1990 civil war.

Protesters in the capital shouted in support of Shiite-majority areas such as Tyre, strongholds of the powerful Hezbollah movement, which has urged its backers not to protest.

"Tyre, Tyre, Tyre. We're rising up for you," they chanted.

Despite Hezbollah's warnings, protests were also staged in the southern city itself, the National News Agency and television showed.

People also took to the street in Sunni-majority Sidon and the northern city of Tripoli.

Lebanon had come to a standstill for around two weeks until the cabinet resigned on Tuesday, after which protest roadblocks were lifted and banks re-opened.

Protests temporarily petered out as rain hit the capital, but activists vowed to fight on until the rest of their demands were met.

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

Earlier in the capital, hundreds of men and women took part in a feminist march from the national museum towards the main square.

"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.

Early afternoon, the president addressed Lebanese in a televised speech as thousands of his supporters thronged the road outside his presidential palace.

"I call on you to unite," the 84-year-old Maronite Christian president said from his palace in the town of Baabda outside Beirut.

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.

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

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 corruption.

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 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.

On Saturday night, thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in Tripoli -- several travelling in from other parts of the country, inspired by the 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.

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