President Aoun addresses Lebanon for first time since protests began

The president vowed to tackle corruption but said the streets were no place to bring down the government

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Corruption has eaten the country to the bone, President Michel Aoun said on Thursday in his first remarks to the Lebanese people since the start of mass protests just over a week ago.

The country's leader said that sectarianism was the root of all Lebanese problems as he vowed to root out corruption.

"Everyone who stole public wealth must be brought to account," he said. "We were talking about fighting corruption every day... let's see the bank accounts of all officials, thieves have no sects."

He said the prime minister’s reform package has to be accompanied by measures to combat corruption. He said he had presented such legislation and there are other suggestions.

The prime minister's package of reforms, backed by Cabinet on Monday, is the first step to save Lebanon from financial collapse, the president said.

Mr Aoun said that all parties had to cooperate in government to enact the reforms. He said he was committed to passing laws to fight corruption but it is up to parliament to make the laws.

"Regime change does not take place in the streets… but your call will not go unanswered," he added.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun presides a cabinet session at the Baabda palace, Lebanon October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun addressed the nation after a week of widespread anti-government protests. Reuters

He said he was willing to hold constructive dialogue and his goal is to avoid chaos and economic collapse. "I am waiting for you," he added.

The president promised that protesters would be free to demonstrate in public spaces "if there is any delay or postponement."

Mr Hariri tweeted after the speech to say he had contacted the president and "welcomed his call to reconsider the current government through constitutional mechanisms."

Initial reactions on the street did not seem swayed by the president's address.

“They turned Lebanon into a dictatorship and now he is talking about accountability,” a woman told Sky News Arabia moments after the president finished speaking.

“We will put them on trial one by one, and he is one of them,” another said of the president.

Anger on the streets seemed widespread after the president's address. Footage from various protest sites showed people openly criticism Mr Aoun – technically a legal offence in Lebanon – and saying nothing short of resignation would be enough.

Many were asking why it had taken eight days for the president to speak to the country. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, by contrast, made an address within 24 hours of the first protests.