Lebanon's Aoun invites protesters to talk, hints at government reshuffle

By Ellen Francis and Eric Knecht
Demonstrators shout slogans during ongoing anti-government protests at a highway in Jal el-Dib

By Ellen Francis and Eric Knecht

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Thursday he was ready for a dialogue with protesters to help save the country from collapse after days of demonstrations against the ruling elite, and he suggested a government reshuffle was possible.

Protests fueled by worsening economic conditions have paralyzed the country and kept banks shut. Lebanon's banking association said it would keep lenders closed on Friday for a seventh consecutive working day, citing safety concerns.

"Once normalcy is restored, we are very confident that we can resume servicing our customers in full capacity," said Salim Sfeir, chairman of the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

The protests, expressing outrage with an establishment seen as corrupt, have buffeted Lebanon since last week despite reforms meant to appease discontent and reassure Western donors that have pledged badly needed aid but not yet disbursed it.

In a televised address, Aoun promised to fight state corruption that he said had "eaten us to the bone" and assured protesters that their "shouts will not be wasted".

"I am ready to meet your representatives who carry your concerns, to listen to your specific demands," he said.

The protest movement has cut across sectarian lines and been largely leaderless. It was not immediately clear which, if any, representatives would meet with Aoun.

He said there was "a need to review the current government," hinting a reshuffle could be in the cards, but warned protesters that the system could not be changed by crowding public spaces.

"We will discuss what we can do together to achieve your objectives without causing collapse and chaos, open a constructive dialogue that can lead to a constructive result, and define options that will lead to the best results."

The protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful and the army has struggled to prevent persistent demonstrators from blocking roadways. They have pledged not to use force to reopen roads. Schools have remained closed.

Aoun also vowed that those who had stolen public wealth would be held to account and looted money returned.

Protesters who took to the streets for an eighth day dismissed Aoun's address and refused to back down, saying their main demand was the resignation of the government.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose government groups nearly all of the main parties in a sectarian power-sharing system, said he welcomed the call to review the current government through "constitutional mechanisms".

Druze politician Walid Jumblatt called a reshuffle the "best solution" to pull the country out of crisis and said it should be followed by new parliamentary elections.


PROTESTERS REJECT SPEECH

Protesters spurned Aoun's overture.

"No one can negotiate on behalf of the street. They must achieve the goals of the masses and the government's resignation is the primary demand," said Basil Saleh, 39. "The ball is rolling and it's not in favor of the government."

In the speech, Aoun said he supported proposed reforms to lift bank secrecy and scrap the legal immunity of presidents, ministers, and members of parliament - legislation that could pave the way for corruption investigations.

The United States, Britain and France have all urged Lebanon in recent days to act quickly on reforms to rein in graft and cut waste, and have expressed support for the protesters.

Lebanon is hoping the reforms will convince Western donors to release some $11 billion pledged at a conference last year but contingent on long-delayed reforms.

The economy, whose mainstays include construction and tourism, has suffered years of low growth due partly to regional turmoil, with war-torn Syria next door.

Capital inflows have ebbed and Lebanon's public debt, about 150% of GDP, is one of the world's highest.

In the town of Jal el Dib, demonstrators waving Lebanese flags brought out umbrellas and raincoats to keep up their protests despite rain. Some erected makeshift barricades to block a main roadway.

"We want to tell Michel Aoun, we thought we were your sons. We waited for you eight days and today we realized it was in vain," said Salaam Zataari, shouting into a microphone to rally a crowd of several hundred.

Government measures announced this week that include halving minister salaries, taxing banks and overhauling the wasteful electricity sector have failed to defuse popular anger and have yet to prod Western donors to make good on pledged financing.

"That speech did not convince us at all. We've heard it a lot before. That's why we're staying here until the government falls," said Clara, a university student.


(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis, Issam Abdallah and Eric Knecht; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Mark Heinrich)