BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters blocked main roads yesterday, angered by what they saw as the president ignoring their demands in nearly a month of demonstrations, after a man was shot dead. Hundreds protested near the palace of President Michel Aoun in the town of Baabda outside the capital, where security forces laid coils of barbed wire across the access road. Aoun had said on television the previous night that Lebanese who did not see any decent person in power should “emigrate” – a comment that, despite the presidency scrambling to clarify it, immediately sent angry protesters to the streets.

One man died of gunshot wounds overnight as the army opened fire to disperse protesters south of the capital, the second such death since the start of the largely peaceful protests. Protester Engy, 47, said she had been shocked by the president’s comments. “What the president said was very belittling. It was as if we didn’t even exist,” the engineer said, carrying a Lebanese flag. “So we’ve come out to make sure he hears us.”
Lebanon’s unprecedented protest movement, which broke out on Oct 17, has been calling for a complete overhaul of a political elite accused of inefficiency and corruption. After the government stepped down on Oct 29, protesters demanded a fresh cabinet composed of experts not affiliated with any of the traditional political parties. But Aoun in the interview argued that a government made up solely of independent technocrats would not represent the people or be able to set policies. “Where should I look for them? On the moon?” he said, arguing true independents were scarce in a country where most people follow a specific political party.

Aoun also criticized the street movement’s lack of leadership, after previously saying he would be prepared to meet representatives to hear their demands. Among the protesters outside his office, Nisreen Hujairi, 29, described Aoun’s interview as a “disappointment”. “A president is supposed to unite, not divide” the people, she said, just over a week after a pro-Aoun rally was welcomed in Baabda. “With two people falling martyr, the state has fallen too,” she said, referring to the fatal shooting late Tuesday.

Yesterday, an unknown gunman stepped out of his car and opened fire on protesters at a roadblock north of Beirut, the National News Agency said. The Red Cross said it had transported four wounded people to hospital. It was not immediately clear who the attacker in the village of Jal al-Deeb was, or what motivated him.

From early morning, activists had blocked roads inside the capital, as they did the main highways connecting Beirut to the north and south of the country, with the smoke of burning tires blackening the air in several places. One activist, Antoine Saad, manning a roadblock in Jal al-Deeb said he found the president’s comments disdainful. “He needs to know the people don’t want him anymore and he needs to go.”

The protests erupted spontaneously last month after the government announced a plan to tax calls made via free mobile phone apps such as WhatsApp. But they quickly morphed into a mass cross-sectarian movement denouncing everything from unemployment and rampant poverty to poor healthcare and endless power cuts. The World Bank says around a third of Lebanese live in poverty, and has warned the country’s struggling economy could further deteriorate if a new cabinet is not formed rapidly.

The former cabinet will remain in a caretaker capacity until a new one is formed, but required parliamentary consultations on the matter have not even been scheduled yet. Forming a government typically takes months in Lebanon, with protracted debate on how best to maintain a fragile balance between religious communities. In his interview, Aoun suggested a new cabinet made up of both technocrats and politicians.

He did not deny the existence of US pressure to exclude his powerful ally, the Shiite movement Hezbollah, from any future government, but said he could not be forced to do so as it represents “a third of Lebanese”. Iran-backed Hezbollah is designated a “terrorist” group by the United States and several of its officials are under US sanctions. But the movement, the only one not to have disarmed after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, is a key political player in Lebanon with posts in parliament and in the outgoing government. – AFP