BEIRUT - Observers say moves by Lebanese President Michel Aoun to entrench his position will only escalate political and economic tensions amid popular demands to rid the ruling elite and tackle corruption and the lack of public services characterizing the tiny Mediterranean country, once called the "Switzerland of the Middle East." Protesters have blocked some roads in Beirut and other parts of the country as they press for badly needed reforms, stepping up the pressure at a time of acute economic crisis.
Analyst Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut tells VOA that he and other observers see Sunday’s rally of President Michel Aoun supporters as a way of pushing back on the popular protests demanding concrete change gripping Lebanon.
"He is moving from a sensitive position to trying to entrench himself within the political system. It was a way to contest the popular movement, telling the protesters: 'Here I am," said Hage Ali. "I have my own popularity. You don’t represent everyone. This is my version of the events,' a reinstatement of the status quo that he represents. It wasn’t reconciliatory. It’s a distortion. People are angry and it pushed people to go back to the streets, blocking the roads."
Hage Ali says ordinary Lebanese are resentful of the president’s son-in-law and Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil who they see using his position to benefit himself and jockeying for the presidency. He says Lebanese are fearful that Aoun and Bassil will simply escalate an already potentially volatile situation by reappointing disgraced Prime Minister Saad Hariri who stepped down due to popular demands.
"The whole presidency has been marred by this out-of-touchness. The son-in-law is living in a world of his own," said Hage Ali. "He is running the show in the presidency. He is the face of this detached government. He came out saying, 'My street versus your street.' A kind of call for an escalation rather than calming people down. What people are hearing on the streets is that there will be a Hariri-led government and Gebran Bassil wants to stay in it."
Powerful Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has criticized Aoun saying that his allowing the government to stay on in caretaker capacity until a new Cabinet is formed violated the Constitution. He says that “after the popular movement had brought down most, if not all, of the political class, Aoun undermined the Constitution… to serve the interests of the despotism of one person and a useless political movement.”
Meanwhile, another Carnegie analyst says Lebanon has the third highest level of public debt in the world—equivalent to 150 percent of GDP—and is in deep recession while inequality grows, public services fail, and the infrastructure crumbles.
The country is on the verge of economic collapse unless an "immediate solution" can be found to end days of nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country, the Central Bank Governor Riad Salame recently told CNN.
Observers say the political system that has dominated Lebanon since an agreement ending its 1975-1990 civil war has led to decades of corruption and economic mismanagement that have culminated in a severe financial crisis.