Hariri resigns, protesters celebrate, and uncertainty persists in Lebanon

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October 31, 2019

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By Countercurrents Collective

Following an unprecedented popular revolt for 13 days over decades of political corruption and economic turmoil in Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has resigned on Tuesday.

After the announcement, the main protest square in central Beirut erupted into applause, less than an hour after counter-demonstrators ravaged the site and attacked protesters.

Cries of celebration and joy went up across Lebanon, one of the world’s most highly indebted nations with public debt at more than 150 percent of GDP, on Tuesday although most of the protesters said this was merely an initial victory in a long-term battle.

Hariri’s televised address came soon after violence broke out on the streets in Beirut, when a few hundred supporters of two Shia groups – Hezbollah and the Amal Movement – beat protesters and destroyed protest encampments in central Beirut before Hariri’s televised address, eventually retreating after security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets.

The Shia groups set tents on fire and beat anti-government demonstrators. Some chanted in support of Hezbollah – a powerful force in the coalition government – and the Shia political party Amal.

Riot police and troops responded with tear gas, and by the end of the day, anti-government protesters were back on the streets celebrating Hariri’s announcement.

Resignation

Hariri on Tuesday submitted his government’s resignation to President Michel Aoun.

“I will head to the Baabda Palace to submit the government’s resignation in response to the demands of a lot of Lebanese who took to the streets,” Hariri said in an address to the nation.

He later submitted a written resignation to the president at the Baabda Palace.

After the announcement by Hariri, one protester shown on local television said: “Saad Hariri is only the beginning. We will continue” until others resign.

The nationwide cross-sectarian protest movement is calling for an overhaul of a political class viewed as incompetent and corrupt.

The protesters have accused the political elite of desperately attempting to save their jobs and have stuck to their demands for deep, systemic change – a complete overhaul of country’s sectarian-based system of government.

The main demand of the protesters has been the formation of a government of independent experts to guide the country through a worsening economic and financial crisis and secure basic services such as electricity and water.

Chance should not be wasted

Addressing “all political life partners,” Hariri said: “Today our responsibility is to seek ways to protect Lebanon and revive the economy.”

“There is a serious chance that should not be wasted and I put my resignation at the disposal of the president and all Lebanese,” he said.

“Posts come and go and what’s important is the country’s dignity and safety,” Hariri went on to say, stressing, “no one is bigger than their country,” which is a famous saying by his father, slain ex-PM Rafik Hariri.

It is unusual for a prime minister to announce his cabinet’s resignation before holding talks at the presidential palace in Baabda.

Media reports quoted Baabda sources as saying that President Aoun was “still studying Hariri’s resignation letter” and that he would not ask him to act in caretaker capacity on Tuesday.

Raised fists and street wins

With raised fists, traditional “dabkeh” dances and broad smiles, thousands of Lebanese celebrated Hariri’s offer to resign.

Across Lebanon, demonstrators filled main squares in their droves, waving Lebanese flags and celebrating their first major win.

The northern city of Tripoli, a stronghold of Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal Movement, saw one of the largest turnouts, with hundreds releasing red, white and green balloons – the colors of the Lebanese flag.

The southern city of Sidon, from where the Hariri family hails, was filled with a festival atmosphere after the premier’s speech.

Young men lifted each other on their shoulders, as demonstrators danced dabkeh and pounded on drums.

“As of this moment, we can say the street has won,” said Atef al-Abreeq. “The street has forced the government to resign.”

Revolution is not over

“Our revolution is not over,” shouted the protesters.

“What happened today is a big achievement for the revolution,” said Mohammed, 32.

Some protesters even called on members of Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal Movement to join in the festivities.

Demonstrators distributed traditional Arabic sweets, coffee and corn on the cob.

But many said their work was unfinished.

“This resignation is welcome but it’s not enough, it’s only one part of a larger list of demands,” said Tima Samir, a 35-year-old mother of two.

“We want the entire system to change and we’ll stay on the streets until all our demands are met.”

In Sidon, Ahed Madi said he had never witnessed such scenes in his hometown.

“Sidon usually celebrates when a government is formed. This is the first time Sidon celebrates the government’s resignation,” he told AFP.

In the Beirut streets, the protesters exchanged hugs and kisses, the ground around them littered with the charred remains of burnt tents.

“The next step is the formation of a transitional government comprising of independents,” said Gil Samaha as jubilant protesters started to stream back in.

“Hariri isn’t the one who’s sending his people to beat us up and destroy what we have. Those people are still in Parliament and we need to finish what we’ve started there,” Mouzannar said, sitting next to a tent being reconstructed by protesters.

On a nearby road leading to Riad al-Solh square, Saba, a 21-year old event planner, was painting Lebanese flags on the faces of passersby. “He should have resigned earlier, but better late than never – and we got what we wanted,” she said.

But she, too, said Hariri’s resignation by no means satisfied her hopes for the unprecedented movement she was part of. “Step two is to get back the money politicians have stolen from us. Then we will hold everyone accountable, and God is on our side,” she said.

As evening fell, hundreds of Lebanese in Riad al-Solh stood together for the national anthem. Many hugged. One woman stood still, tears rolling from her eyes.

“This may be the biggest achievement for my generation, winning in a clash of this level with our politicians,” Nabil, a 30-year old engineer, said.

Hundreds of others were out in towns and villages across the country, including in Jal al-Dib, Zouk Mosbeh and Jbeil north of Beirut, and Nabatieh and Tyre south of the capital.

“We don’t want any part of the ruling class to be part of this government. The most important thing is to get rid of them all, and form a new electoral law that abolishes sectarianism and has Lebanon as one district,” Rafeef, a 21-year old law student, said.

Back in Riad al-Solh, Rafeed, the law student, said she had woken up the day before feeling as if the protest movement was coming to an end. It was raining, turnout was low across the country, and the government did not seem like it was budging.

“But after what happened today, I’m certain we won’t be leaving the squares,” she said.

“We have nothing to lose at this point. If they want to kill us in the squares, let them do it – but we won’t budge until our demands are met.”

Complicated task

The sudden resignation – the third by Hariri in his career – will restart the complicated task of parliament forming a new government.

It would also mark the most significant win by the protesting people.

Sami Nader, director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, said, “Hariri is opening the door to a solution because the resignation is the only way for a decent exit from the current crisis.”

He said the most likely outcome would be the formation of a government “ala Libanainse, which means you put some independent figures in order to satisfy the street, but the old modus operandi will remain.”

“At least Hariri opened the door for a possible solution, because we were in total deadlock and behaving as if nothing happened and doing business as usual was not a solution.”

Lebanon’s current electoral law has the country gerrymandered into 15 districts, with seats allocated by sect.

Political leaders have appeared shell-shocked, trying simultaneously to express sympathy for the largely peaceful protests while warning of chaos in case of a power vacuum.

Unclear situation

As of Tuesday night, the chart for forthcoming government formation deliberations, which take place via binding consultations between Parliament and the president, were unclear – though Hariri is widely seen as a likely candidate to again head the new government.

Most political players simply called for calm although Hezbollah and its ally the Free Patriotic Movement, the biggest party in the now-resigned government, did not make official statements.

“What is happening requires immediate calm and dialogue between all Lebanese sides,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah, told local media, adding, “What is happening is not sectarian at all.”

Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea, whose four ministers quit from government on October 19, welcomed Hariri’s resignation. He said a new “government of specialists” should be formed and include people known for their “cleanliness, integrity and success.”

Progressive Socialist Party chief Walid Joumblatt, an ally of Hariri, who had previously called on Hariri to resign, before reversing this call, also said dialogue and calm were paramount in the current situation.

As soon as Hariri announced his resignation, popular delegations, dignitaries, clerics, former prime ministers, incumbent ministers and al-Mustaqbal Movement MPs flocked to the Center House to express their support for his decision to resign.

The visitors included former PMs Tamam Salam and Fouad Saniora, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan and the ministers Raya al-Hassan, Mohammed Choucair, Adel Afiouni and Jamal Jarrah.

Hariri told his visitors: “I just want to say: May God protect Lebanon and we hope to get out of this impasse and we hope that the country will be fine.”

He said he was relieved because the resignation was in response to what the people wants, and said: “We will all stay together.”

To avoid financial collapse

Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh on Monday said the country needed a solution to the crisis within days to avoid a financial collapse.

“The only real way forward for Lebanon is to appoint a government that can move on from the disruption of this revolution and restore the confidence with the people and the international community,” Nader said.

What’s Next

The resignation of Hariri will plunge the country into even greater uncertainty, with no clear path to resolving its growing economic and political crisis.

The political settlement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war distribution of power and top offices among the country’s Shiites, Sunnis and Christians. The complex sectarian system has mostly kept the peace, but it has made major decisions extremely difficult and contributed to long periods of political gridlock.

The Western-backed Hariri had served in a national unity government dominated by rival factions allied with the militant Hizbullah group. He had proposed the creation of an emergency cabinet made up of a small group of technocrats to steer the country toward necessary reforms, but his governing partners refused.

A point of dispute emerged over Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.

The protesters have trained much of their vitriol on the two men, who are allied with Hizbullah, but Aoun has reportedly insisted on remaining in office and keeping Bassil in his post. Hizbullah, which has three ministers in the government, has stuck by its allies and was opposed to Hariri’s decision to resign.

Aoun will task the now-resigned government to continue in a caretaker capacity. Under the constitution, he then has to hold binding consultations with the heads of parliamentary blocs to ask them for their choice of a new prime minister. He could then appoint Hariri or another individual from the Sunni community to form a government. In Lebanon’s system, the presidency is reserved for a Christian, the prime minister is Sunni and the parliament speaker is Shiite.

Aoun has the right in principle to reject Hariri’s resignation, but he could then refuse to call for cabinet meetings.

The process of forming a new Lebanese government typically takes several months. It took Lebanon’s factions 2 ½ years to agree on the current president, and it took nine months to form Hariri’s now-embattled government.

This time, however, the country is in the grip of a severe economic crisis that has only worsened since the protests began, with banks, schools and businesses are closed for two weeks.

“In this context, it is incredibly difficult to see them agreeing on any one new name,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

That would leave Hariri in place as head of a caretaker government.

“His capacity to address the economic crisis and possible economic and financial collapse will be curtailed even more,” Yahya said. “A devaluation of the Lebanese pound will likely lead to even more social unrest and turbulence on the street.”

Hariri’s resignation makes crisis “even more serious” says France

The resignation of Lebanon’s government has made the crisis there “even more serious,” France’s foreign minister said Tuesday.

“Prime Minister Hariri has just resigned, which makes the crisis even more serious,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament in Paris, and urged the authorities in Lebanon “to do everything they can to guarantee the stability of the institutions and the unity of Lebanon.”

Le Drian said a condition for stability in any country “is a willingness to listen to the voice and demands of the population.”

“Lebanon needs a commitment from all political leaders to look within themselves and make sure there is a strong response to the population,” said the minister, offering France’s help.

30 October 2019

Source: countercurrents.org

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