BEIRUT: Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement and President Michel Aoun gathered Sunday near Baabda Palace, in a demonstration of support after weeks of anti-government protests.
Thousands of supporters, holding Lebanese and FPM flags and wearing orange clothes and FPM accessories, took cars and buses across Lebanon to the gathering point at a road leading to the presidential palace.
The state-run National News Agency reported that convoys were sent from locations across the country, from Tripoli to Nabatieh.
A large convoy set off from in front of the FPM’s office in Batroun, with supporters raising banners reading, “Freedom, sovereignty, independence.”
Speaking before the convoy departed, FPM coordinator for Batroun Najem Khattar told those present, “We’re going to say that ‘All of them’ does not mean that all are corrupt. ... This president cannot be corrupt or unjust.”
“All of them means all of them,” has become a popular chant during the protests, calling for all political leaders to step down.
“The people will prove through this demonstration that they do not accept groundless insults against the president. We feel that there is a coup d’etat in the country ... which the FPM and the president can repel, uniting the people under the banner of reform and ridding the country of corruption,” Khattar added.
Lawmaker Assaad Dergham addressed Aoun from his convoy in Akkar, saying, “We were with you in 1989 and we continue to be with you. We are with you today to say that every Lebanese wants a country ruled by a civil state in which there is accountability, and which is free of corruption.”
The demonstrators in Baabda were joined by FPM leader and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, FPM caretaker ministers Elias Bou Saab, Nada Boustani and Ghassan Atallah, and a number of lawmakers from the party’s Strong Lebanon bloc. Bassil was escorted by members of the Presidential Guard as he moved through the crowd.
“We have warned our partners that we will get to this stage ... and we are here to tell [the people who have protested] that we are with them and let’s continue together,” Bassil told the crowd.
In his second public appearance since the uprising began on Oct. 17, Bassil criticized protesters for blocking roads, saying, “We should block roads for MPs who refuse corruption-combating laws, politicians who escape accountability and judges who do not implement the law.” He also called for the lifting of banking secrecy on the accounts of public officials and the return of looted public funds.
Following Bassil’s speech, Aoun appeared on screens from the presidential palace for a surprise live address. “I call on you all to unite,” he said, cautioning against having “one protest against another.”
“You are here today to renew the vow ... I am with you and I love all of you, and all of you means all of you,” Aoun told his supporters.
Aoun said that he had drawn up a three-point road map to tackle corruption, fix the economy and form a civil government.
“It won’t be easy to implement, and we need everybody’s efforts,” he said. “Corruption cannot be easily gone, because it has been rooted in the state for decades, and it can only be fought when you make the effort and help us do that.”
During the nationwide uprising, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets against Lebanon’s ruling class and rampant state corruption. Among the protesters’ demands have been the resignation of the current Cabinet and the formation of a technocrat government, early parliamentary elections and the election of a new president. That would put an early end to Aoun’s now 3-year-old term.
Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister on Oct. 29, bringing down the government. Protesters have since demanded that Aoun hold binding parliamentary consultations, which are necessary to designate a new prime minister, and form a technocrat government.
Many protesters have targeted Bassil with chants often accompanied by insults. They have also accused him of corruption.
FPM supporters Sunday held pictures of Bassil and his mother with the caption “Gebran Bassil, minhebbo [we love him].”
“These are not rebels. True rebels listen to the president,” one supporter said.
“Aoun is the true leader of the revolution,” MP Salim Aoun said.
Aoun’s daughter, Chantal Aoun Bassil, who is also Bassil’s wife, said the FPM was calling for a vote on bills in Parliament, such as those to return squandered public funds and lift banking secrecy from officials “to see who is truly obstructing [such reforms].” She added: “We have the biggest parliamentary bloc but we are not the majority.”
The FPM’s Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc had 29 lawmakers out of Parliament’s 128, prior to the beginning of the uprising. But MP Chamel Roukoz, who is also Aoun’s son-in-law, and MP Neemat Frem have reportedly left the bloc since.
The FPM was part of the now-defunct March 8 coalition, which today would include the FPM, Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Marada Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and a group of MPs who call themselves the Consultative Gathering, comprising a total of 67 MPs - a majority in Parliament.
A similar demonstration of solidarity was held in Baabda Saturday night, attended by Bou Saab, Atallah and Boustani, as well as Strong Lebanon bloc lawmakers.
A video circulating online showed Atallah, who is minister for the displaced, singing “Hela hela, hela hela ho, Gebran Bassil, minhebbo [we love him].” The same chant - with a different ending - has been enthusiastically used by protesters to insult Bassil.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Lebanese living in the diaspora held solidarity demonstrations over the weekend in support of the president, from cities in Canada, the U.S and Australia to Mali and Brazil. - Additional reporting by Nick Newsom