Lebanese demonstrate on road to presidential palace, oppose ‘National Dialogue’

National dialogue meeting chaired by President Michel Aoun boycotted by most of the country’s opposition parties.
Thursday 25/06/2020
Lebanese anti-government protesters stand facing army soldiers during a demonstration near the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on June 25. (AFP)
Lebanese anti-government protesters stand facing army soldiers during a demonstration near the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on June 25. (AFP)

BEIRUT – Hundreds of Lebanese protesters gathered Thursday morning on the road leading to the Presidential Palace in Baabda voicing their opposition to the national dialogue meeting chaired by President Michel Aoun and boycotted by most of the country’s opposition parties.

Thursday’s protest comes hours after demonstrators took to the streets across the country on Wednesday evening to denounce the dire economic and financial situation.

In the capital Beirut, protesters blocked the Ashrafieh-Hamra lane of the vital Ring highway.

Scuffles later erupted between the protesters and security forces, which resulted in injuries according to al-Jadeed TV.

Other protesters, meanwhile, rallied outside the Central Bank in Hamra.

The Baabda meeting kicked off Thursday despite a large number of boycotts and nationwide demonstrations in Beirut, Bekaa, Tripoli, Akkar, Mount Lebanon and Tyre, casting doubt on any potential outcome.  

The meeting, touted as a dialogue to bolster “civil peace,” was boycotted by former Prime Ministers Saad Hariri, Najib Mikati, Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam.

Christian leaders also snubbed the Baadba talks, including the leader of the Lebanese Forces party Samir Geagea, the leader of Marada Movement Suleiman Frangieh, leader of Kataeb Party Samy Gemayel and former President Emile Lahoud. 

“We will not participate in a meeting whose aim is to throw dust in our eyes,” Geagea said Wednesday, adding that “Lebanese people are at odds with the authorities.”

Speaking at the meeting, Aoun warned of an “atmosphere of civil war” and what he described as attempts to stir up sectarian tensions as a financial crisis sweeps the country.

The crisis is seen as the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the 1975-90 civil war. A 75% decline in the Lebanese pound since October has been reflected in soaring prices and savers have been frozen out of their deposits.

Aoun’s comments referred partly to confrontations in Beirut earlier this month that opened old sectarian faultlines between Shia Muslims and Christians and between Shias and Sunnis.

“We touched the atmosphere of civil war in a worrying way. Movements replete with sectarian tensions were launched in a suspicious manner,” Aoun said.

Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system requires the president to be a Maronite, the prime minister to be a Sunni and the parliament speaker to be a Shia.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab, appointed in January with backing from Aoun, the powerful Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, said the exchange rate was the only concern for Lebanese.

“Lebanese want the central bank to control the dollar exchange rate vis-a-vis the Lebanese pound and to preserve the value of their salaries and savings,” he told the meeting.

Lebanon’s currency continued its downward spiral Wednesday, reaching a new low before the dollar and raising such alarm that it prompted Berri to call for a state of “financial emergency.”

The Lebanese pound was reportedly selling at 6,200 to the dollar, losing more than 75% of its value. The pound had been pegged at 1,500 to the dollar since 1997.

Despite government efforts to manage the currency crash — including injecting dollars into the market and setting a higher rate for specific transactions — chaos prevailed and the parallel currency market continued to thrive.

Highly indebted Lebanon is in the throes of financial and economic crises, made worse by restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus in March.

Political rivalries have also complicated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which the Lebanese government asked last month for $10 billion in financial assistance.

Berri said the crash of the Lebanese pound is a signal for the government, the central bank and private banks to declare a “financial state of emergency” to review measures to protect the local currency. He didn’t elaborate but called the crash “dubious and coordinated.”

“It is unacceptable to leave the Lebanese hostages to the black market for the foreign currency, food, medicine and fuel,” Berri said.

“Lebanese politicians would be mistaken if they think that the IMF or any donor country can give us any one penny of assistance if we don’t implement reforms.”

Berri said Lebanon has become a “bottomless basket” that no one wants to help.

Reflecting the dire straits Lebanon is facing, traditional donors to the state, including Gulf and European countries, have asked for major reforms before dispensing any assistance.

Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated the same line, adding that real reforms are necessary before support is extended to the government. He added that it must be a government that is not “beholden to Hezbollah.”

Hezbollah is on the US sanctions list and Washington considers it one of Iran’s most powerful proxies in the region.

“When that comes, when the government demonstrates, whoever that is, demonstrates their willingness and capacity to do that I think that not only the United States but the whole world will come in to assist the Lebanese government get its economy back on its feet,” Pompeo said.