Protest Crowds Surge as Beirut Braces for Next Step

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 11, 2006

BEIRUT, Dec. 10 -- Hezbollah and its allies turned out the biggest crowds yet in downtown Beirut, sending hundreds of thousands of followers to the gates of the government headquarters Sunday in a feat of mobilization and discipline described by some leaders as the last mass protest before the 10-day campaign escalates.

Legions of flag-waving protesters danced, blew horns and beat drums in a demonstration that, as in past days, was festive, swathed in a cool breeze on a sunny day. But its leaders stipulated only a few days before more measures were taken to topple the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. By nightfall, the city, suffused with a military presence, was rife with rumors over the next step. Hezbollah refused to confirm or deny that it planned to cut roads in the capital in a mounting campaign of civil disobedience, and Michel Aoun, a Christian ally, suggested a more forceful march on the government itself.

"All these actions become legitimate when the rulers start committing crime after crime, and refuse to step down, and find refuge in illegitimate actions," he told the crowd. "Legitimate actions are for rulers who respect the legitimacy of its people."

The crisis, Lebanon's worst since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, has relentlessly deepened since it erupted in October with the demand by Hezbollah and its allies for a greater say in Siniora's cabinet. Since then, it has escalated into deeply personal attacks between Siniora and Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah. Both communities have mobilized their supporters, sometimes along bluntly sectarian lines, sending a chill through a capital that still bears the civil war's scars. Both communities rule out a retreat in a confrontation that could decide the country's political culture, foreign policy and priorities for years to come.

In the broadest terms, the conflict pits Hezbollah, Aoun and an allied Shiite movement, Amal, against the government and a coalition that coalesced in protests last year after former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated. But within the struggle is an array of some of the most deeply felt issues here: whether the government's ally, the United States, or Hezbollah's allies, Iran and Syria, will have greater influence; the power of the Shiite community that Hezbollah largely represents; frustration over corruption that Hezbollah and Aoun have framed as populist demands; and Lebanon's posture toward Israel.

"This is a coup against the state in the name of God," Samir Jisr, a parliament member and ally of Hariri's son, Saad, who inherited leadership of Lebanon's Sunni community, told tens of thousands at a counter-protest in northern Lebanon.

Two of Lebanon's most powerful television stations played to their crowds. Future Television, loyal to Hariri and his Sunni constituency, devoted extensive coverage to the counter-protests in Tripoli. Hezbollah's al-Manar, calling the protests here "an unprecedented popular flood," aired four scenes simultaneously of the crowds surging downtown. The broadcast was laced with the vocabulary of this summer's war with Israel: victory, steadfastness and salvation.

"People who survived 33 days of war in the south have no problem staying here for a year, or even two," said Nada Mroueh, joining protesters flying flags that denoted their affiliation -- yellow for Hezbollah, orange for Aoun, green for Amal. "Is it wrong to ask for our rights? Is Siniora more Lebanese than us? We are Lebanese, too."

The demonstrators filled a swath of downtown and backed up into the main arteries leading into the city. Hezbollah has sought to cast the protest as representative of what it calls the national opposition, and the crowd unfurled a sea of red, white and green Lebanese flags across downtown. Overlooking the main square, two banners were draped over a building. One showed Siniora embracing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"Thanks, Condy!" it read in English.

"Hold a news conference tonight or tomorrow, no rush, and announce your resignation as a gesture to preserve the unity of the Lebanese people and rejection of foreign tutelage," said Naim Kassem, the deputy leader of Hezbollah, addressing Siniora, as protesters in a tightly packed square strained their heads to get a glimpse of the turbaned leader.

At another point, he urged the crowd to repeat after him: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"


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