Competing protests in Lebanon bring thousands to the streets

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BEIRUT (AP) — Tens of thousands of people held competing rallies in Lebanon Sunday, including thousands who flocked to the presidential palace in support of the country's president and others who gathered in downtown Beirut as part of ongoing protests that aim to sweep from power Lebanon's entire political elite.

The leaderless anti-government 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.

Around noon Sunday, President Michel Aoun addressed thousands of his supporters at a rally near the presidential palace outside of Beirut. "There are lots of squares and no one should pit one against another, or one demonstration against another," he said, while adding that more would be done to fight deeply rooted political corruption.

Hours after the president spoke, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in a major square in downtown Beirut calling for the government to speed up the political transition following Prime Minister Saad Hariri's resignation last week. They also called for a general strike on Monday to pressure political leaders.

The downtown protesters chanted against Aoun and the country's political establishment saying "all of them" should go. They were the largest protests in Beirut since Tuesday when scores of Hezbollah supporters ransacked an anti-government sit-in, injuring some of the demonstrators.

Aoun's Christian party 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.

Aoun called on his supporters to work with the anti-government protesters to end corruption and to create a non-sectarian state, in remarks carried live on screens at the rally near the presidential palace in Baabda. He acknowledged that "corruption will not end easily because it has been deeply rooted for decades."

"The people have revolted because their rights are missing," Aoun said. "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 spoke. He defended Hezbollah, which the U.S. has imposed new sanctions on recently as part of its maximum pressure against Iran.

"A third of our people are not terrorists. We reject the idea of isolating some of our people," said Bassil, in an apparent reference to the Shiite community that makes nearly a third of the country's population.

Later Sunday, protesters closed a main highway north of Beirut and other street intersections, saying they will not stop their campaign until all their demands are met.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned Tuesday, meeting a key demand of the protesters, but many are calling for more sweeping change. The government proposed a vague roadmap last month aimed at improving the economy, fighting corruption and replacing the sectarian political system with a civil state, but the protests have continued.

Aoun must now hold consultations with parliamentary blocs before appointing a new prime minister, but that process could take weeks or even months judging by past experience, and protesters are worried it would leave the same political figures in place. Lebanon's sectarian parties are run by powerful families that include many former warlords.

Under the current system, Lebanon's president has to be a Maronite Christian, the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni. Cabinet and parliament seats are equally split between Muslims and Christians.

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