Thousands of Hezbollah supporters set up camp in the heart of Beirut on Saturday, starting an open-ended sit-in with a carnival atmosphere intended to pressure the U.S.-backed government of Fuad Saniora into resigning.
The political crisis, which has disrupted life in the capital’s commercial district and raised fears of violence between the country’s pro- and anti-Syria forces, showed no sign of easing.
Holed up in his office only about 50 yards from some of the protesters, Saniora made clear he had no intention of stepping down and urged Hezbollah to abandon its protests.
“This government will continue as long as it enjoys the support and backing of the constitutional institutions in the country, most importantly Parliament,” said Saniora, who received support from European leaders.
He called on Hezbollah to resume negotiations over its demand for a bigger role in the government, but he offered no suggestions for how that might happen.
“Taking to the streets will not lead us anywhere ... There is just one way to solve our problems and that is to sit behind a table to discuss all our differences,” Saniora said. “Other than that it is a waste of time, waste of resources and waste of opportunities.”
As he spoke, thousands of Hezbollah loyalists clamored noisily around hundreds of white tents pitched in central Beirut, saying they would stay until Saniora’s government fell. Shouts of “Saniora out!” occasionally rose from the protesters.
Hezbollah’s support among Shiite Muslims skyrocketed after the strong showing of its guerrillas during the summer war with Israel, and that in part emboldened the group.
Six pro-Hezbollah ministers resigned from the Cabinet last month after Saniora and his slim anti-Syrian majority in Parliament rejected the group’s demand for a new national unity government that would effectively give it and its allies veto power.
The current government is largely backed by Sunni Muslims and Christians who oppose involvement in the country’s affairs by neighboring Syria, which was forced to end a nearly three-decade military occupation last year.
Saniora and his supporters call Hezbollah’s campaign a coup attempt led by Syria and its ally Iran, a stance echoed by Washington, which is seeking to counter Iranian influence in a number areas of the Middle East.
Backing for Saniora also came from France, Britain and Italy.
Following talks with the prime minister, visiting British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the government was elected by the Lebanese people. “I believe the world community supports the constitutional government,” she said.
In a telephone call, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin told Saniora he had “France’s full support,” de Villepin’s office said in a statement.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi in Rome also said that he spoke to Saniora and found him “determined to go on and resist intimidation.”
Syrian state-run newspapers, meanwhile, voiced support for the Hezbollah demonstration, with one daily calling it “the most sincere expression” of Lebanon’s reality and national unity. “Will the government respond, or is it determined to lead Lebanon into the unknown?” it asked.
Hezbollah, an ally of Syria that is backed by many Shiite Muslims and some Christians, contends the fight is against American influence, saying the United States now dominates Lebanon in the interests of Israel.
“We want a government that cannot be sold!” a group of young protesters chanted Saturday.
“This government is a puppet. Saniora’s Cabinet takes its orders from (President) Bush and has lunch with (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice while its own people are being killed,” said Hussein Shuqair, a 20-year-old student.
Lebanese angered by Rice footage
Many in Lebanon, particularly Hezbollah supporters, were angered by TV footage of Lebanese government officials having lunch with Rice at the U.S. Embassy during Israel’s 34-day bombing blitz in Lebanon. The U.S. was seen as encouraging the attempt to destroy Hezbollah’s military capability.
“This government promised a lot of things but did not deliver and that’s why it must go,” Shuqair said as he ate a cheese sandwich while sitting on a white plastic chair outside his tent.
Tents went up after Hezbollah opened its campaign Friday with a peaceful demonstration in downtown Beirut by hundreds of thousands of supporters who chanted nationalist slogans and songs just outside the main government offices.
Hezbollah loyalists set up water tanks and portable latrines and distributed sandwiches, tea and coffee to those camped out. Young men sprawled lazily on mats inside and outside tents under a bright, warm sun. Some read newspapers, others smoked waterpipes.
Dozens of white-capped Hezbollah workers swept the streets, littered with leftover food and drinks from the night before.
Men performed their prayers on the pavement.
“If Saniora had one ounce of feeling, he would resign,” said Aya Mughniyeh, a 20-year-old Hezbollah supporter dressed in black from head to toe.