Lebanon’s top politicians made their first joint appearance since massive anti-government protests erupted last month, attending a military parade for the country’s 76th Independence Day.
This year’s parade could not be held in its traditional location in central Beirut because a protest camp still occupies the area. A parallel civilian celebration, organised by the protesters, is planned for later in the day.
The limited Independence Day display reflects the nation's sombre mood. Lebanon faces its most serious political and economic crises in years, as anti-government protests have gripped the country since mid-October.
A deadlock among the top leaders has failed to produce a government, three weeks after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. Most of those leaders have refused to answer the protesters’ demand for forming a government of experts, outside of the traditional sectarian-based power sharing agreement.
Mr Hariri, who now heads a caretaker government, maintained a stern expression during the military parade, while President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri exchanged smiles. The leaders exchanged a few words during the 30-minute parade of marching soldiers. There was no display of tanks or helicopters and no foreign dignitaries were in attendance.
Mr Berri and Mr Aoun left immediately after the parade ended, while Mr Hariri stayed for a little longer and spoke to the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
In a speech to mark the occasion on Thursday, Mr Aoun had said a consensus on forming a government remained far off because of “contradictions that control Lebanese politics”. He did not elaborate. He also told protesters "only dialogue is the right path to resolve crises".
In an ominous sign, unknown vandals set fire to a large cardboard fist in Beirut’s protest camp, which had become a symbol of the uprising. The fist had been painted with the word "Revolution”.
Videos and photos circulating on social media showed the fist catching fire at dawn Friday. Protesters who were camped in the could not manage to put out the blaze. A single protester defiantly raised his fist in the air beside the charred fist. Local media said the protesters were preparing to set up a new one during the Independence Day parade they are organising.
Nationwide demonstrations began on October 17 against new taxes on WhatsApp calls amid a plunging economy. The protesters now are calling for the downfall of the political elite who have run the country since the 1975-90 civil war.