BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon's president pleaded Thursday with tens of thousands of protesters who have blocked main roads and paralyzed the nation for days, urging thems to back economic reforms proposed by the prime minister as the "first step" toward saving the country from economic collapse.
The protesters, however, have already rejected the initiative and were not swayed by President Michel Aoun's overtures or calls for dialogue.
As the protests entered their second week with banks, schools and public institutions shuttered, the country appeared headed for a protracted crisis with no clear roadmap for a solution.
In his televised address, Aoun pledged to exert every effort to implement radical reform, but also said that change can only come from within state institutions. He said freedom of transportation must be respected, urging demonstrators to remove roadblocks.
Following Aoun's speech, Prime Minister Saad Hariri tweeted that he welcomed Aoun's call to "reconsider the current government's status," apparently referring to a potential Cabinet reshuffle.
Lebanon has been engulfed by protests since last Thursday, a paralysis that has compounded the country's severe economic crisis and is threatening to plunge it into another cycle of chaos and instability. Banks, schools, universities and other businesses have been shuttered for a week.
The protests were triggered by new proposed taxes and have escalated into a nationwide revolt against the country's sectarian-based leaders, who have ruled the country since the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, amassing wealth even as the country gets poorer. Corruption and mismanagement have been widespread.
Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded public squares across the country in the largest protests in over 15 years — a rare show of unity among Lebanon's often-divided public in their revolt against status-quo leaders who have ruled for decades and brought the economy to the brink of disaster.
Aoun's comments are his first since the protests started. On Monday, Hariri announced a package of economic reforms the government hopes will help revive the struggling economy, but the protesters denounced it as empty promises designed to quell their movement. They have insisted on staying in the street until the government resigns. Some have called on the president to step down as well.
Hariri heads a national unity government that includes the militant Shiite Hezbollah group, which is allied with Aoun.
The protests are the first of their kind for Lebanon, shattering taboos by openly taking aim at powerful sectarian leaders from their own communities. These include the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Shiite Amal movement, headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Tempers flared on the streets Thursday as the protests entered the second week.
In downtown Beirut, scores of Hezbollah supporters cut through a protest, shouting slogans in favor of the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, as others chanted against the entire ruling elite. Fist fights broke out repeatedly between young men wearing black shirts and the other protesters. Dozens of riot police formed a human barrier between the two sides. At least one woman was treated by paramedics.
In a Beirut suburb, an Aoun supporter insulted a journalist from a rival television station on air as she was about to go live, leading to a shouting match recorded on video that was trending on Twitter in Lebanon.
Earlier, as Aoun spoke, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Beirut to listen to his speech through a giant speaker and shouted: "Come on, leave, your term has left us hungry."
They later dismissed his speech, saying it offered nothing new.
"There were some hopes that the president would make some government amendments that meet the people's demands and (the demands of) this popular uprising. Unfortunately, the speech did not rise to the level of this uprising," said Rabah Shahrour, a protester. Demonstrators continued to gather in several designated spots across the country, despite rainy weather Thursday.
Aoun said every person who stole public money should be held accountable and he said he is committed to fighting corruption, but warned of economic disaster if there is a power vacuum.
"The (economic) reform paper that was adopted is the first step to save Lebanon and to distance the specter of financial and economic collapse," Aoun said.
The president promised the protesters' "call will not go unanswered," adding he's ready for constructive dialogue.
"I heard lots of calls for bringing down the regime," he said. "The regime cannot be changed in the squares ... this can only happen through state institutions."
Both Hariri and Aoun have warned that a government resignation would lead to a power vacuum at a time when the country desperately needs a government to enact reforms to help the struggling economy.
Aoun invited the leaderless protesters to send representatives to meet with him.
"I am ready to meet your representatives who will carry your worries and specify your demands, and you can listen to our concerns about an economic collapse," he said. "We should work together to achieve your goals without causing a collapse."