Massive rally piles pressure on Lebanese government
Hundreds of thousands of chanting protesters swamped Beirut yesterday in a Hizbollah-led rally that marked a leap forward in the opposition's drive to unseat Lebanon's Western-backed government.
In a huge show of force, crowds waving a forest of red-and-white Lebanese flags crammed into two vast squares to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
"Siniora out," demonstrators chanted. "Beirut is free," others yelled in what one security force source estimated was the biggest rally in Lebanese history.
Giant loudspeakers blared out nationalist songs and drummers thudded a relentless beat on the 10th day of a round-the-clock protest aimed at getting Mr Siniora and his Sunni-backed majority to set up a government of national unity.
Holed up in his well-protected office, which is ringed by coils of razor wire, Mr Siniora urged his opponents to end their street demonstrations and resume negotiations.
"On this occasion, I call on the protesters to come back to the constitutional institutions to discuss all contested issues and reach real solutions," he said in a statement.
But yesterday's mammoth rally will give pro-Syrian Hizbollah and its disparate partners fresh impetus, strengthening their conviction that Mr Siniora will ultimately have to back down and hand them the power of veto in a broad-based government.
Speakers told the throngs that the government was a puppet of the US, repeating accusations that Mr Siniora's allies had hoped Israel would crush the Shi'ite militant group Hizbollah in its recent war with Israel. "I tell you that after the (Israeli) aggression... there is no place for America in Lebanon," said Hizbollah deputy chief Sheikh Naim Kassem, speaking behind bullet proof-glass.
The crowd responded: "Death to America, death to Israel, long live a dignified Lebanon".
Mr Siniora has accused Hizbollah of trying to stage a coup following its war and commentators have warned the worsening stand-off could degenerate into sectarian violence in a country that is still trying to rebuild after a 1975-90 civil war.
Whereas the last civil war started out primarily as a fight between Christian and Muslim militia, the main faultline now lies between Lebanon's Sunni community and the Shi'ites.
One Shi'ite protester has been killed and several people hurt in shooting incidents, riots and clashes between supporters of both sides over the past week.
The prime minister told a conference earlier in the day that Lebanon's security, economy and political system were at stake, but said its democracy was strong enough to absorb the shock of the protests.
"This challenge covers the vision of Lebanon's future, the future of its system and its place in the region and the world."
Underlining the political passions at play, tens of thousands of pro-government supporters staged a rally yesterday in the Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
Pope Benedict urged Lebanon yesterday to back away from political crisis and asked the international community to help find urgent, peaceful solutions at this "grave moment".
Populist Christian leader Michel Aoun, a former general who has forged an unlikely alliance with Hizbollah, told the rally if Mr Siniora did not concede "in the next few days", the opposition would demand early elections.