Lebanese president calls corruption biggest danger to the country

Politicians have yet to form new government as protests continue and Lebanon sinks deeper into financial crisis

epa08015265 A handout photo made available by Lebanese official photographer Dalati Nohra shows Lebanese President Michel Aoun speaks to the people for the 76th independence anniversarym at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon 21 November 2019. The dialogue alone is the right way to resolve crisis, President Michel Aoun said in his message to the Lebanese people on the 76th anniversary of independence.  EPA/DALATI NOHRA HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Thursday that corruption was the biggest threat to the country.

“Inside Lebanon, there is a grave danger to our society, institutions and economy. It is corruption,” Mr Aoun said in a 13-minute televised speech on the eve of Lebanon’s 76th Independence Day.

Mr Aoun has tried to appease the Lebanese people by vowing to fight corruption in his four media appearances since mass protests started on October 17, sparked by the government raising taxes to fix the faltering economy.

Political parties have yet to form a new government since prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29 and the country is sinking deeper into a financial crisis that protesters blame on its ruling elite.

Mr Aoun said he recognised that fighting corruption had become a convenient “consumerist slogan” often repeated by politicians, but that its implementation consistently failed because of “sectarian red lines”.

“That is why I turn to you, oh Lebanese people, asking for your help," he said.

"No one else but you can press for implementing existing laws and the necessary legislation to recover looted funds and prosecute corrupt people."

Anti-government protesters listen to the Lebanese President Michel Aoun as he delivers a televised speech on the eve of the country's 76th Independence Day, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019.  Aoun barely mentioned the month-long protests in his speech and said consensus on government formation remained far off because of "contradictions that control Lebanese politics." He didn't elaborate. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Anti-government protesters listen as President Michel Aoun delivers a televised speech. AP

Protests have pressured the Lebanese judiciary, which has often been accused of failing to act against corruption, to file charges against high-profile officials and politicians, including former ministers, in the past weeks.

Mr Aoun criticised judges for failing to act on more than 18 corruption files that had been brought to their attention since 2017.

He praised protesters for “breaking taboos” and “pushing the judiciary to take action”, but also chastised them for “criminalising innocents” and “hate speech”.

Protesters frequently insulted politicians during the first weeks of demonstrations, particularly Mr Aoun’s son-in-law and caretaker foreign minister Gebran Bassil, who also leads the Free Patriotic Movement, the party founded by the president.

As a solution to the economic crisis, Mr Aoun promised that by next year, oil and gas would be drilled off the coast of Lebanon.

Experts have warned that despite politicians’ promises, income from potential offshore oil and gasfields could take years to materialise.

Responding to one of the key demands of protesters, Mr Aoun promised to “liberate” Lebanon from “sectarianism and to start the necessary steps towards a civic state”.

The Taif agreement that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990 outlined a transition to a non-sectarian state, but this was never implemented.

Mr Aoun’s early media appearances were poorly received.

Violence flared after an hour-long interview on November 12 in which he said that those unhappy with Lebanese politicians could emigrate.