BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led opposition paralysed parts of central Beirut on Saturday on the second day of a campaign to topple the U.S.-backed government.
Scores of tents sprung up overnight as protesters occupied parking lots, squares and streets leading to the government’s headquarters bringing Beirut’s normally bustling commercial district to a standstill.
Restaurants and cafes, usually packed with people on weekends, were shut. Many banks also stayed closed.
Hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters rallied on Friday to demand the resignation of the Western-backed government, but Prime Minister Fouad Siniora insisted his government would not be toppled through demonstrations. “This is a government elected by the people of Lebanon and a government which has the constitutional authority that election gives it,” British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told reporters after meeting Siniora in Beirut.
Shi’ite Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Shi’ite Iran, wants to topple what it calls a U.S. government in Lebanon. The anti-Syrian politicians who dominate the cabinet say the opposition is attempting a coup. “Going out on the streets will not yield a result and we won’t reach a solution except if we sit behind … the negotiating table,” Siniora told reporters.
The demonstrators imposed a blockade on the government offices on Friday, but later eased it after contacts between opposition leaders and Arab diplomats, a senior opposition source said. “The government received our message,” he said.
Scores of soldiers have cordoned off the government offices with barbed wire and metal barriers.
Although the dispute is political, many Lebanese fear the situation could spark sectarian violence. Tension between Sunnis and Shi’ites is high, in addition to bad feeling between Christians who support leaders allied to the rival camps.
Washington ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on the opposing sides to exercise “wisdom”. “What I fear is that if the demonstrations continue, and take on a sectarian form, supporters of these sects from outside Lebanon will join in and no one will be able to control it, especially if it continues for a long time,” Mubarak told journalists in Sharm el-Sheikh. “And the result will be a transformation of Lebanon into a battlefield that subjects it to danger.”
Many supporters of Hezbollah and its allies — the Shi’ite Amal Movement and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement — said they would stay put until Siniora’s government resigned. “We’re staying here until the government falls, even if it takes one month or two months,” said Mohamed Hussein, 25, from Baalbek. The indefinite sit-in was festive with protesters dancing to drumbeats or smoking waterpipes.
Hezbollah has been at loggerheads with Siniora’s government over what it says was its failure to back the group during the 34-day summer war with Israel.
Six opposition ministers quit the cabinet last month after talks collapsed on giving them a greater say in government. The cabinet was further weakened by the assassination on Nov. 21 of anti-Syrian minister Pierre Gemayel.