WED 15 - 7 - 2020
Date: Jun 6, 2020
Source: The Daily Star
Diab warns protesters against plunging Lebanon into chaos
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Hassan Diab Thursday cautioned protesters that they would plunge Lebanon into chaos if they resorted to blocking roads, clashing with security forces or vandalizing public and private properties during a massive anti-government demonstration they planned over the weekend.

Diab issued the warning during a Cabinet session that extended the nationwide lockdown for another four weeks as part of attempts to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Cabinet, which met under President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace, approved a recommendation by the Higher Defense Council to extend the state of general mobilization from June 8 until to July 5, Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad told reporters after the session.

It is the sixth extension of the general mobilization measures that have been in force since March 15 to contain the spread of virus that has so far infected 1,306 people and claimed the lives of 28.

The Higher Defense Council’s spokesperson said the measures should remain in place given the “imminent danger” the virus posed to Lebanon. “The [preventive] measures are still urgent to avert any second wave whose consequences will be difficult to treat,” he said.

The extension of the lockdown measures comes as activists from various civil society groups, as well as supporters of Christian parties opposed to the government, are planning to stage a mass demonstration in Martyrs’ Square in Downtown Beirut at 3 p.m. Saturday to protest against the deteriorating economic and living conditions and denounce the country’s’ entrenched political leaders.

Posters circulating on social media by some activists said Saturday’s demonstration would be a revival of the Oct. 17, 2019, popular uprising, which has largely lost momentum since March by the spread of the coronavirus and the government’s subsequent preventive lockdown measures that banned all kinds of public gatherings.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets across the country last October to demand, among other things, a change of the country’s decades-long confessional system and the ousting of the political elite they accuse of corruption, mismanagement and squandering of public funds.

Unlike previous street protests, Saturday’s planned demonstration might witness a new call by some protesters for Hezbollah to disarm and the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which demanded the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.

Commenting on Saturday’s demonstration, Abdel-Samad quoted Diab as saying during the Cabinet session: “We understand the outcry of the people who are feeling the burden of the social situation. But there is fear there might be attempts to exploit this outcry for political purposes and the people’s demands turning into a means that again causes a return to blocking roads, paralyzing the country, closing institutions, disrupting the people’s work, and subsequently leading to the dismissal of employees and workers.”

“We are with the right of demonstration. But this right will transform into chaos if there is a return to blocking roads and vandalizing public and private property,” Diab said . “I don’t think that any of the Lebanese accepts these practices, which don’t resemble democratic expression.”

Diab, according to Abdel-Samad, cited conditions for people being allowed to protest. These are: Wearing masks, no blocking roads, no vandalizing public or private property, no clashing with the Army and security forces, and no clashing with people who want to go about their daily lives.

Asked by reporters whether the government was fearful of chaos due to the planned street protests, Abdel-Samad said: “There is rather a fear for the safety of demonstrators. This is a preemptive and precautionary measure for the safety of demonstrators and the goals of the demonstration.”

Yet, protesters appear to be split over the demands of Saturday’s demonstration.

Nizar Hassan, a member of activist group Lihaqqi, said various groups participating in the protest have conflicting demands. Hassan said many protesters plan to march from the Central Bank in Hamra to Downtown Beirut, under the original demands of the Oct. 17 uprising to overhaul the political system.

But Sabaa Party activists are primarily calling for early parliamentary elections, under the slogan, “We want a date for early elections.” Supporters of the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb party are also calling for early elections, Hassan told The Daily Star. “We [Lihaqqi] see change as a structural change and a change in a system which is much more than just parliamentary elections,” he added.

Abdel-Samad said that the government would not be deviating from its five-stage plan to reopen the country at this point. The businesses that have been allowed to operate under certain conditions may carry on doing so.

She said that military and security agencies would be asked to heighten their measures to prevent violations of containment rules, which currently include a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew, certain driving restrictions and capping restaurants’ operating capacity at 50 percent.

Diab confirmed during the Cabinet session that the second batch of financial aid to people affected negatively by coronavirus containment measures had started to be distributed, Abdel-Samad said.

She also reported that the beneficiary list had been widened “in line with field studies carried out by the Lebanese Army in direct cooperation with the Interior Ministry, municipalities and mokhtars.”

Speaking at the beginning of the Cabinet session, Aoun rejected political and media campaigns targeting his mandate and the government.

Addressing the ministers, Abdel-Samad quoted Aoun as saying: “It is regrettable that the public opinion listens daily to campaigns targeting the regime and the government about the causes of the current crisis, at a time when everyone knows that neither me, nor you are the cause of this crisis. We did not steal public money, nor can anyone accuse us of anything.”

Aoun called on ministers to be united and respond to all accusations leveled at them. “You are not responsible for what happened in the country as a result of years of negligence and waste,” he said.

Responding to the Future Movement parliamentary bloc’s accusation that he was infringing on the Cabinet’s powers, Aoun said: “I am exercising my constitutional powers in full and I respect the powers of everyone, particularly those related to the government and its head.”

In a statement issued after the Future bloc’s weekly meeting chaired by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri Tuesday, the bloc warned of the “deliberate persistence in the political and partisan infringement on the powers of the Cabinet and turning it into an institution that has been stripped of constitutional competency.”

Meanwhile, Aoun and Diab after Cabinet’s session signed a decree calling for Parliament to hold an extraordinary round, which will begin June 8 and run through Oct. 19, 2020.

The extraordinary session will allow MPs to debate a range of important draft laws and reforms, including a draft capital control law that is considered to be a prerequisite for any foreign financial assistance. The government last month began negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a financial aid program to pull the debt-ridden country out of its worst economic turmoil in decades.

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