BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies called for a peaceful protest and open-ended sit-in in downtown Beirut on Friday to demand a new government in a fresh challenge to U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The anti-Syrian majority has said that the Hezbollah-led campaign could amount to a coup against the last year’s “Cedar Revolution” — large protests that forced Syria to pull out its forces and elections that swept the coalition to power — and aims to revive Syria’s influence in Lebanon.
Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and its main allies — the Shi’ite Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian leader Michel Aoun — say they want effective participation in decision making and better representation in government to reflect their political weight.
Many Lebanese fear that large-scale protests could disintegrate into street violence, deepening the political crisis and pushing Lebanon towards chaos amid escalating sectarian tension. “The national Lebanese opposition… calls the Lebanese… to a peaceful gathering and open-ended sit-in in central Beirut on Friday at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) to demand the formation of a national unity government,” an opposition statement said.
The Lebanese army has said it would be neutral in the political standoff but intervene to stop violence or attempts to storm government buildings.
Thousands of soldiers and police have been deployed in the streets of Beirut since the Nov. 21 assassination of anti-Syrian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel.
The protest will take place near the government offices and parliament in downtown Beirut, scene of Lebanon’s largest protests last year.
Six opposition ministers resigned this month, weakening Siniora’s government.
Hezbollah and its allies said they pulled out their ministers after the majority coalition rejected their demands for a decisive say in government. The anti-Syrians say they quit to derail plans for an international tribunal to try suspects in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.
A U.N. inquiry has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the assassination. Syria denies involvement.
Siniora’s depleted cabinet approved U.N. plans last week for the special court for the Hariri trial.