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Lebanon — a nation divided

Hundreds of thousands of protesters from Hezbollah demonstrated on the streets of Beirut on Friday hoping to shift the balance of power away from the existing pro-American government. NBC News’ Richard Engel reports from Beirut.
Lebanese pro-Syrian groups wave national flags during a rally in Beirut
Lebanese pro-Syrian groups wave national flags during a rally in Beirut on Friday.Sharif Karim / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Hundreds of thousands of protesters from Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies demonstrated on the streets of Beirut on Friday hoping to shift the balance of power away from the existing pro-American government.

The protests were the latest demonstration of the decisive rift splitting Lebanese society over the political future of the country. The police estimated the crowds to have been about 800,000 people, while Hezbollah claimed that there were more than 1 million – both estimates being close to a quarter of Lebanon’s population of 3.8 million. 

NBC News’ Richard Engel reports from Beirut on what the latest protests mean for the Lebanese government’s shaky hold on power.

What was the goal of Friday’s protest in Beirut?
The goal is very simple: Hezbollah and its supporters want more power. 

They saw that this current government staged mass demonstrations after the assassination of Rafik Hariri under the flag of “we want change, we want the Syrians out,” and through those demonstrations managed to come into power.

Now Hezbollah is adopting the same tactics. It’s just that the represent the other camp — the anti-American camp, the pro-Syrian camp — and are trying to force a change in government through popular street demonstrations. It is also a fallout of the war this summer. The country is still divided over that war.

The government and the army opposed the war with Israel and didn’t take part in it — the army was only sent to southern Lebanon after the fighting was over. So Hezbollah believes that it won a great victory over Israel with the war — both militarily and politically and is now using some of that popular capital among its own supporters to try to gain more strength in the government.

What are Hezbollah’s specific demands?
Hezbollah and its coalition — there is a major Christian party aligned with them — want to have one-third of the government, plus one. That would give them veto power over all major government decisions.

Right now Hezbollah is popular on the streets, they are popular in charities, social institutions, trade syndicates, and in parliament, but they do not have as much sway in the actual Cabinet. They want more power in the Cabinet — they want veto power over the Cabinet. And they believe that after what they perceive to be a major success last summer, that they have the popularity to do it. And they certainly have the organization.

This has been a very well-organized protest. Hezbollah organizers were out with walkie-talkies and wearing special caps — making sure that the crowds stayed in order. Tents have been set up, and they brought in portable toilets and water tanks for the protesters. Hezbollah even distributed gasoline coupons so that their supporters in southern Lebanon could drive to the capital of Beirut. And the protest succeeded — the city is now in a stand-still.

Meantime, the pro-American Prime Minister Fuad Saniora is effectively a prisoner in his office. Troops have surrounded the prime minister’s palatial office in downtown Beirut. He is inside, surrounded by a ring of barbed wire and armored personnel carriers, and there are serious questions here as to how long this can last.

Now, Friday evening, there is still a small core group of protesters — nothing like the large group that was here during the day. But a small core group is still in the streets. They say they will spend the night and expect more people to join them tomorrow.

The government so far is saying that this is a coup attempt by a radicalized minority and that they will resist it. The government says they will continue to go on with their work, but they are hoping for dialogue.

It will become clearer this weekend how serious this situation becomes. If Hezbollah manages to effectively shut down the city like they did today for days and days, then the government will be in a difficult position and there may have to be some sort of political compromise. But it is still early, and everyone expects that this is going to take several weeks to play itself out.

You said that the protests were very well organized and they appeared to be very peaceful. Are there fears that if the protests continue, they could grow violent?
No. There are no fears that Hezbollah is going to attack any government buildings or clash with any soldiers.

That said, I’m looking right now at armored vehicles rolling through the streets of Beirut. This is not the kind of scene that we have seen in the city since the war this summer with Israel — armored vehicles on the move in the city itself. Right now they are just a sign of protection, to prevent anyone from storming the prime minister’s office, but it shows how fragile the situation is.

There is a concern that as this continues and frustration grows, there could be clashes on the fringes of these demonstrations. There are fears that as people go home and return to their neighborhoods, that there could be violence — particularly among the Christians. As I said earlier, there is a Christian group participating alongside Hezbollah and that is very much dividing the Christian community here in Lebanon.

The protests were organized by Hezbollah, but was there any involvement from Syria? Syria would not have been involved in any way on a logistical level to organize these protests. Hezbollah is a powerful political party unto itself. It is not only a puppet of Syria.

It supports Syria, and is supported by Syria, but it would not need Syrian money or agents on the ground to organize this kind of rally. It is more than capable of doing it by itself. 

With the recent assassination of yet another anti-Syrian politician, Pierre Gemayel, just a few weeks ago, and with the country still recovering from the war with Israel over the summer, how fragile is Lebanon’s democracy?
Well if you ask the protesters here today — they would say that they support democracy. They are coming out in the streets with peaceful demonstrations and want to show their people power. So the idea that democracy is at stake is not really the issue.

What they say is that the current government — which has been a U.S. ally, has expressed interest in having a dialogue with Israel, and has the same vision for a new Middle East that the Bush administration has — is in serious danger of collapse, in part because of it’s association with the United States. People here accuse it of being an American puppet.

So the danger is not that you have a loss of democracy, but that you have a changing of sides. That the government would fall to the other camp — would fall to an anti-American, pro-Syrian camp with close ties to Iran. That’s the danger, not that you would have some kind of dictatorship. It’s not a question of democracy —  it’s about what camp controls the government.   

How are these protests affecting the average person living in Beirut?
There is nobody who is just sitting back and not affected by this. You were either out demonstrating last week or you are out today.

The estimates are that there were between 800,000 and a million people on the streets today. That’s a quarter of the entire population of Lebanon. The equivalent in the U.S., which has a population of about 300 million people, would be if 75 million people participated in a single street demonstration. So this affects everyone in the country.

The average person in Beirut is torn. Which camp are you in? Are you in the pro-government camp — in which case you were out last week during the protests. Or are you in the anti-government camp — in which case you are in protests today — Friday. There is no one who is just the average citizen sitting idly by. The country is split down the middle with two camps that are of roughly equal size. 

It is just that Hezbollah is better organized, much more militant, and there is also a class issue. Hezbollah supporters are mostly poor people who are willing to sit in the streets and camp out on the pavement overnight.

The people who were demonstrating last week are called the “Gucci Revolutionaries” here. They are the wealthy, elite of society. They came out, walked around for a few hours, and it was like a fashion show. The demonstrations today did not feel like a fashion show.