Road after road opened up around Lebanon on Wednesday as troops cleared highways and negotiated with protesters to stop them from blocking roads. The demonstrators’ numbers dwindled from thousands to handfuls in Beirut’s squares. Schools are set to open their doors Thursday, and banks said they would resume full operations Friday after more than 10 days of closures.
“This means that there is a push to bring back things to normalcy, which is a challenge for the street to stay mobilized,” said Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s a way to deflate the mobilization.”
The Lebanese now must wait for their president to set a date for consultations to form a new government. Aoun announced that he will publicly address the nation Thursday, exactly three years after he took office as president.
There is no obvious candidate to take over Hariri’s post, which, according to the sect-based power-sharing system of governance in Lebanon, must be filled by a Sunni Muslim. Hariri’s supporters fear that his withdrawal will leave behind a political power vacuum and strengthen his opponents.
Pressure from the protests initially pushed the prime minister to set a 72-hour deadline early last week for himself and his government to respond to the protesters’ demands. He produced a package of reforms that included cutting officials’ salaries in half, fixing the dysfunctional electricity sector and setting up an anti-corruption committee.
But the protests did not stop — they grew. The streets swelled with calls for everyone, regardless of sect and political party, to leave government.
Hariri was only one of the main politicians whose resignation people have specifically demanded. Demonstrators also called for the departures of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is Aoun’s son-in-law and a central figure in the protesters’ chants.
Hariri’s announcement effectively dealt a blow to his opponents, Aoun and Bassil, Bahout said. The prime minister was seen as part of a unified line of defense against calls for any and all resignations. If all politicians held their positions, in this view, they could stand stronger together in the face of resignation demands.
But now that Hariri has announced he is stepping aside, protesters are focusing on who will be next to fall.