Anger grows in Lebanon

Thousands demand ouster of premier

December 11, 2006|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- When hundreds of thousands of demonstrators choked Beirut yesterday to demand the ouster of the U.S.-backed government, their show of political strength came packaged with a harsh threat: Time for a political compromise is running out.

A menacing tone laced the speeches of party officials from Hezbollah and its allies. In the jammed streets, frustration crept into the cries of demonstrators who washed over downtown in waves. The huge sit-in has moved into its second week without tangible results, and within the opposition, calls are mounting for an escalation in civil disobedience.

Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian leader and political ally of the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, closed the demonstration with a threat. Cheers arose from the crowd as Aoun promised that "this stage has come close to its end."

"In the few coming days, we expect to change the status quo we're in. This must be the last big rally we'll call for, because in the next one there will be no room for all the protesters," he said. "And the barbed wire will no longer protect [government offices], because people will move there naturally and without any instigation."

Aoun pledged to remain peaceful, but, in the next breath, said pointedly that "other means" also are legitimate.

From Arab diplomats to Christian clerics, negotiators are struggling to broker a power-sharing compromise to bring Lebanon back from the brink of collapse.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa was expected to return to Lebanon this week to continue searching for a deal. Late yesterday, reports emerged that Hezbollah might be willing to accept the Arab League proposal. But the details weren't clear and other flashes of optimism have been squelched in weeks of contentious negotiations.

Dismissing the street protests as an attempted coup d'etat engineered by Hezbollah's foreign backers, Syria and Iran, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Cabinet ministers have resolutely clung to power. The insults and criticism unleashed upon Siniora, a Sunni, have stirred fury among government supporters and raised the religious ire of Sunnis.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah and its allies have stepped up warnings of civil disobedience: a large-scale labor strike, the closure of roads and the airport, storming the government offices to oust Siniora. Such escalation would run the risk of sparking clashes by provoking the government and its supporters and, potentially, the army and security forces.

Despite a nuanced set of allegiances among religious sects on both sides of the divide, the demonstration is viewed by Lebanese as a standoff between a Sunni-dominated government and a Shiite-led street protest.

The government can't give up too much power without raising threatening questions of weakness among the Sunnis. Nor can Hezbollah go home - or accept too little - without accepting defeat on behalf of Shiites.

"You can't back off in Lebanon," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "If you do, it means an entire sect has been defeated."

In a country where losing face is akin to ceding power, Hezbollah and its allies have staked their credibility on their pledge to oust the government.

From the beginning, the protesters predicted that the Siniora government would crumple in the face of popular demonstrations. But that hasn't happened.

Despite curses and cries from the streets, despite the crippling of Beirut, the government has continued to plug away. International delegations come and go. Siniora appears on television every day, weary-looking but composed. Police guard the streets; trash gets picked up.

Still, an eagerness to shatter the status quo is mounting in the streets. Among Hezbollah and its allies, there is growing fear that the first flush of revolutionary enthusiasm will sink into stagnation or that the demonstration - and by extension their political movements - will appear irrelevant.

"We are not tired," Ali Hassan Khalil, a lawmaker for the Shiite Amal party, told the crowd yesterday as demonstrators poured into Beirut from around the country.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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