The Hezbollah-led opposition called Thursday on its supporters to take to the streets this weekend in a massive show of force, stepping up the pressure on the U.S.-backed government that has vowed not to give in to protesters.
The move came as street demonstrations by Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian parties aimed at pressuring Prime Minister Fuad Saniora into quitting entered their seventh day with no end in sight to the deepening political crisis threatening to tear the country apart.
The opposition called on supporters to take part in “a historic and decisive” demonstration in central Beirut Sunday, hoping it would be “a day in which deaf ears and blind eyes would open by meeting the legitimate demands and replacing monopoly with participation and the one-color government with a national unity government,” according to a statement published in Lebanese newspapers on Thursday.
Hezbollah’s supporters also were expected to turn out in large numbers in central Beirut later Thursday night to listen to the militant group’s leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who was scheduled to address the crowd. It was not immediately known whether he would address the crowd live or by a video link.
The guerrilla group, which has gained increasing political clout after its summer war with Israel, wants to topple Saniora’s government because it has rejected demands for forming a national unity government that would give the pro-Hezbollah factions veto power in the Cabinet.
Influenced by Iran, Syria?
Saniora’s allies, meanwhile, have accused Hezbollah of being influenced by Iran and Syria, which they claim want to destabilize Lebanon by supporting the militant group’s plans to oust the government.
Hezbollah and its allies brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to central Beirut last week for a protest to launch their campaign to crush the government.
Sunday’s planned protest coincided with Saniora’s appeal to Hezbollah and other factions to return to the negotiating table and help rebuild Lebanon.
It also came as Lebanon’s influential Maronite Catholic Church warned that the political crisis had reached a dangerous level and called for parliament to convene to break the deadlock. The church also proposed the formation of a new government and holding early presidential elections.
In its statement Wednesday, the church avoided the term “national unity government,” as demanded the Hezbollah-led opposition, and proposed the formation of a “reconciliation government that ensures wide participation at the national level.”
Lahoud rejects early elections
But President Emile Lahoud on Wednesday rejected early elections, reiterating that the formation of a national unity government was the only solution to the political crisis, according to a statement issued by his office.
The pro-Syrian Lahoud has rejected repeated demands by Saniora and the parliamentary majority to step down. He has vowed to stay in office until his term expires in November next year.
Saniora, emboldened by Arab and international support for his U.S.-backed government, again vowed Thursday to stay in office despite Hezbollah protests.
“We are sticking to our position. We are standing fast, believing in the justness of our position,” Saniora said to a group of supporters at his downtown office, which is ringed by barbed wire, troops and riot police. “We are open with our heart and extend our hands (to the opposition). We will stay on.”
A Sudanese envoy, who arrived in Beirut on Thursday for talks with the rival factions, said the street protests should end, but supported the opposition’s call for a national unity government.
“In our view, the basis of a solution must be founded on the formation of a national unity government and withdrawal of dialogue from the street to parliament,” said Mustafa Osman Ismail, a special envoy of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, meanwhile, denied his country was interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs. Instead, he accused unnamed foreign powers of using Lebanon against Damascus.
He added that Syria will not send back its army to Lebanon “no matter what happens.”
Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon last year under heavy international pressure, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria’s Lebanese opponents blamed Damascus for the killing, a charge it denies.