Supporters of Aoun, Amal rally for counter-protests

President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, have been among the main targets of mass protests that broke out in October

BEIRUT - Thousands of people rallied outside Lebanon's presidential palace on Sunday in a show of support for President Michel Aoun after protests calling for the ouster of the country's elite that have toppled the government.

Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, have been among the main targets of mass protests that broke out in October with the aim of sweeping from power Lebanon's entire sectarian and political elite. Lebanon's sectarian parties are run by powerful families that include many former warlords who have long refused to give up power.

Aoun and Bassil are members of a Christian party that is allied with the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, which has accused unnamed foreign powers of manipulating the demonstrations. The Shiite Amal party, another close Hezbollah ally, also held a rally on Sunday in support of its leader, longtime parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

Speaking live on giant screens, Aoun called on his supporters to work with the anti-government protesters to end corruption and to create a non-sectarian state. He acknowledged that "corruption will not end easily because it has been deeply rooted for decades."

"There are lots of squares and no one should pit one against another, or one demonstration against another," Aoun said, in his third speech since the anti-government protests began on Oct. 17. "The people have revolted because their rights are missing. The people have lost confidence in the state and this is the big problem. We should restore the state's confidence."

Bassil, the target of some of the protesters' harshest chants, also addressed the rally near the presidential palace at Baabda.

'Real social justice'

Aoun's remarks were unlikely to stop two weeks of countrywide demonstrations and the blocking of roads through civil disobedience. Fresh protests were scheduled for later Sunday in Beirut's main squares, and hundreds of men and women took part in a feminist march from the national museum towards Martyr's Square, the nerve centre of the capital's protests.

"Our revolution is feminist," read a banner carried by marchers.

"Speak up, end male chauvinism," protesters chanted to the rhythm of drums.

Sarah Bukhari, 28, said she was there to demand equality.

"It's so important there is real social justice and that women's demands be heard," she said.

Protesters also took to the streets in other parts of the country including the southern city of Tyre, the National News Agency said.

The leaderless movement has united Lebanese from various religious sects, who are calling for the overthrow of the political system that has dominated the country since its 1975-1990 civil war. The agreement ending the war distributed power among Christians, Shiites and Sunnis, but led to decades of corruption and economic mismanagement culminating in a severe fiscal crisis.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Tuesday following the unprecedented nationwide protests, deepening a political crisis and complicating efforts to enact badly needed economic reforms. Meanwhile Hezbollah and its allies, who dominate the government, have held their ground without offering any concrete proposals to meet the protesters' demands.

Sectarian Hezbollah and Amal supporters have also used violence against protesters calling out the leaders of their parties in demonstratons.

On Sunday, a huge convoy of cars, some waving Aoun's orange Free Patriotic Movement party flags and his portrait snaked across a main highway while a sea of protesters marched to Baabda palace.

"We're here to say to Aoun that we love you and renew our trust in you," said Hiyam Khair.

Wearing a shirt with Aoun's face, George Barbar said he had driven from northern Lebanon to show his support: "If people don't join hands with the president, there will be no Lebanon," said Barbar.

Competence and expertise

Aoun's supporters said they backed the overall demands of anti-graft protesters, but insisted the president was the only man able to bring about reforms.

"General Aoun is a reformist and sincere man - not corrupt nor a thief," said one supporter who gave her name as Diana.

"He's trying to fight against graft," she said.

A semblance of normality returned to Lebanon this week, with roads re-opening and banks opening to customers on Friday after being shut for two weeks, though restrictions were reported on foreign currency withdrawals and transfers abroad.

In a speech after Hariri's resignation Aoun signalled support for a more technocratic government, saying ministers should be chosen "according to their competencies and expertise, not political loyalties".

His ally Hezbollah meanwhile has said Hariri's resignation will waste valuable time in enacting measures needed to tighten state finances and convince foreign donors to release some $11 billion in pledged aid.

The protests have been less intense since Hariri resigned, but demonstrators remain on the streets and a core demand is the rapid formation of a government led by technocrats to carry out the badly needed economic reforms.

The United Arab Emirates said on Sunday it was reviewing the possibility of an aid package and would inform Beirut of its assessment but did not yet have details of what it could entail.

Hariri said last month before the protests that the UAE had promised investments and financial aid to his deeply indebted country but that work remained to seal the deal.

Aoun is obliged to hold a formal period of consultations with members of parliament and designate the figure with the most support as the new prime minister who will be tasked with forming a government.