Parallel national day rallies by Lebanon protesters, leaders

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Michel Aoun, Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, center, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, and Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, left, attend a military parade to mark the 76th anniversary of Lebanon’s independence from France at the Lebanese Defense Ministry, in Yarzeh near Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. Lebanon’s top politicians Friday attended a military parade on the country’s 76th Independence Day, appearing for the first time since the government resigned amid nationwide protests now in their second month. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s protesters and top politicians held competing Independence Day celebrations Friday, reflecting the deepening rift that has beset the country grappling with its worst political and economic crises in decades.

The top leadership attended a truncated military parade which was relocated to the headquarters of the Defense Ministry from central Beirut, occupied by protesters.

The mood was somber at the brief parade as a little over a dozen regiments marched before the country’s president, parliament speaker and prime minister, who sat under a red canopy. The three only exchanged a few words and left separately. An official celebration at the presidential palace was cancelled. There were no foreign dignitaries in attendance and no display of tanks or equipment.

It was the first joint appearance by the three since the prime minister resigned three weeks ago, citing a deadlock with political rivals in meeting protesters demands. Since then, the politicians have continued bickering, deadlocked over a new government and showing little ability to adapt in the face of more than a month of nationwide protests demanding an end to business as usual.

Separately, the protesters later held a boisterous parade at Martyrs’ Square, near the waterfront boulevard where the formal celebration is traditionally held. The area has been occupied by protesters since mid-October and is closed off to traffic.

Industrialists, doctors, students, expatriates, musicians, and mothers marched down a main street leading to the square, organized in more than 40 groups, built as “regiments” by the protesters to mirror the military parade.

Lara Hayek, a university staffer, said they wanted to hold popular celebrations where the army does it every year.

“This year we decided that independence is also for the people. We started this revolution. It is a people’s revolution, a nation’s revolution. All the people want to express that.”

The demonstrations began Oct. 17 against proposed taxes on WhatsApp calls but turned into a condemnation of the political elite who have run the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Protesters blame them for years of corruption and mismanagement.

Young people have been at the forefront of the leaderless protest movement, facing a plunging economy and high unemployment and left with few options other than emigrating. The protesters call for a new government and elections outside of the traditional sectarian-based power-sharing agreement.

The politicians “don’t want the country to change. They want it to stay the same and they want us to leave,” said one protester who appeared in the square dressed as Charlie Chaplin and gave her name only as Joyce. “I am an actress. I don’t want to leave this country. I want to stay here, work and live in Lebanon.”

She raised a banner that read: “You people have the power to make life free and beautiful.”

A white banner was hung between two trees inviting protesters to “be creative” about how they want to commemorate independence. One person scribbled: “This is a popular Independence Day. Independence from a corrupt authority. November 22 with a different flavor.”

During the celebrations, protesters planned to re-install a new large cardboard fist labelled “Revolution” in Martyr’s Square after a previous one was burned down overnight by unknown vandals.

Videos and photos circulating on social media showed the fist — which has been a symbol of the uprising — catching fire at dawn Friday. Protesters who were camped out in the square rushed to the site of the blaze. A single protester stood there, defiantly raising his fist in the air beside the charred emblem.

The top political leaders have been deadlocked over forming a new government since the Western-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned on Oct. 29.

Hariri said he has hit a dead-end with his partners in the government, dominated by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, and has called for an apolitical emergency government. His rivals in the president’s party and its ally Hezbollah want to preserve their electoral wins and Hariri, as the face acceptable to the world.

The two sides have sparred publicly. Hariri said the party of President Michel Aoun is acting “irresponsibly” while Aoun’s group said the acting prime minister is holding the Cabinet hostage: “either me or no one else.”

Late Thursday, Aoun said in a televised address that a consensus on forming a government remained far off because of “contradictions that control Lebanese politics.” He didn’t elaborate.

Mahya Yaha, a senior analyst with Carnegie Middle East Center, said the political elite is acting “as it were business as usual,” engaging in closed-door horse trading to form a new government while seeking to maintain power.

“Today, Lebanon’s politicians fear that the demographic and social tide is turning against them. And when the country’s political forces that have exercised power for a long time come to believe that their eclipse is inevitable, they will fight to preserve the privileges they have acquired, at whatever the cost,” she wrote. “This could include resorting to violence in any form necessary.”

Meanwhile, there is always the temptation of Lebanon factions turning to their foreign backers, Yaha said, which risks transforming the country into the focal point for a showdown between the United States, Iran and Russia.

“This would be disastrous for the Lebanese,” she wrote Friday.

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Associated Press writer Andrea Rosa contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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