Lebanon army chief berates politicians after president calls to clear protests

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s president told the army and security forces on Monday to clear roadblocks after a week of protests over a collapsing economy and paralysed government, but the army chief warned that troops should not get sucked into the political deadlock.

Demonstrators gather during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, in Sidon, Lebanon March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

President Michel Aoun issued the call to open up the roads across the country after a meeting with top officials while the army’s top commander held a separate meeting with military commanders at which he stressed the right to peaceful protest.

Army chief General Joseph Aoun also berated Lebanon’s sectarian-based politicians for their handling of the crisis, warning of an unstable security situation.

“The officer also is suffering and is hungry, to the officials I say, where are you going? What are you waiting for? What are you planning to do?” he said in a statement, urging them to find long-lasting solutions to stop the country’s financial meltdown.

One political source said tension between the president and army commander grew after the request to clear roads.

Since the Lebanese pound, which has lost 85% of its value, tumbled to a new low last week, protesters have blocked roads daily.

But there have not been reports of violent confrontations between the security, army and protesters during the week.

General Aoun on Monday warned against pulling the army into political bickering.

“The fragmentation of the army means the end of the entity, this is impossible to let happen. The army is holding together and the experience of ‘75 will not be repeated,” he said.

The army has long been billed as a rare institution of national pride and unity. Its collapse at the start of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when it split along sectarian lines, catalyzed Lebanon’s descent into militia rule.

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Monday’s meeting at the presidency also stipulated a crackdown on anyone violating monetary and credit laws, including foreign exchange bureaus, a statement by the president’s office said.

As Lebanon’s financial crisis erupted in late 2019, a wave of mass protest rocked the country, with outrage boiling over at leaders who have overseen decades of state graft.

Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, bank accounts have been frozen and many have been plunged into poverty.

On Monday, three main roads leading south into the capital were blocked while in Beirut itself, protesters briefly closed a road in front of the central bank.

“We have said several times that there will be an escalation because the state isn’t doing anything,” said Pascale Nohra, a protester on a main highway in the Jal al-Dib area.

By Monday evening, Jal al-Dib protesters had set up tents with some saying they would spend the night in the street.

In Tyre in the south, one man tried to burn himself by pouring gasoline on his body but civil defence members stopped him in time, the state news agency said.

In Tripoli in the north, one of Lebanon’s poorest cities, demonstrators built a brick wall one metre high to prevent cars from passing through, while allowing a pathway for emergency cases.

“The new developments on the financial and security fronts must be tackled quickly,” the presidency statement said.

After a port explosion devastated whole tracts of Beirut in August and killed 200 people, Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned and stayed on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed. But the new prime minister-designate, Saad al-Hariri, is at loggerheads with President Aoun and has been unable to form a new government to carry out the needed reforms to unlock international aid.

On Saturday, Diab threatened to quit even caretaker work to try to push for the formation of a new government.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai hit at politicians in his Sunday sermon: “How can the people not revolt when the price of one dollar has surpassed 10,000 Lebanese pounds in one day, how can they not revolt when the minimum wage is $70?”

Rai has called for an U.N.-sponsored international conference to help Lebanon.

Reporting By Maha El Dahan, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis and Beirut bureau; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean and Aurora Ellis