Lebanon's political crisis deepens
Burning barricades cast a black pall over Lebanon's deepening political crisis Tuesday, as the Hizbullah-led opposition sharply escalated its campaign to topple the Western-backed government with a nationwide general strike.Skip to next paragraph
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Main roads in Beirut were blocked by gangs of young men wielding metal bars and clubs and dragging tires onto flaming piles to prevent people from going to work.
"Yes, the government will fall," says a man at one barricade, his face covered with a white-checked scarf and a wooden club up his sleeve. "We don't know how long it will take: one day, two days, three," he adds, vowing that the antigovernment forces would achieve "everything."
Tuesday marked a violent turn in the opposition's campaign for new parliamentary elections and a national unity government in which Hizbullah and its allies – including a Christian faction led by Michel Aoun – would have veto power in the cabinet. After months of fruitless negotiations, the opposition began camping out in front of key government buildings on Dec. 1.
Though leaders of the opposition bloc promised peaceful protest Tuesday, clashes defined the day. Three people died and more than 100 were wounded across Lebanon.
It was unclear if either the government or the opposition were gaining the upper hand in the standoff. But the way that the clashes erupted at sectarian flash points is prompting fears here of renewed civil war – with sparks flying between those loyal to the Shiite party of Hizbullah and its allies, and Sunnis supporting the government, as well as among divided Christians.
As darkness fell, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on the protesters to avoid being "led astray."
"Today's general strike turned into actions and harassment that overstepped all limits and rekindled memories of times of strife, war and hegemony," Siniora said. "Let us choose co-existence, peace and unity of Lebanese, so we avoid any steps that could escalate violence and terrorism."
On the eve of the strike, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general, vowed that demonstrations would remain peaceful. "Because the opposition has decided that all activity should be conducted in a peaceful context, it might take time" to achieve our goals, he told the Monitor.
The opposition was not only facing the government, but an "international conspiracy against us. For the US is in charge of every detail of the government," Sheikh Qassem said in the interview. "If the government's decisions were made by itself and not from international pressure, the government would have fallen by Dec. 10."
At the close of Tuesday's events, Qassem told the Al Jazeera TV network that the strike would continue. "We will do our utmost to maintain control of ourselves and our supporters but I share with you the concern about the other side, which has no such controls."
Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declared Monday that "if they kill 1,000 of us, we will not use our weapons against them." He asked his followers to "avoid insults and sectarian slogans."
Tuesday's general strike was timed to come before a donor conference Thursday in Paris, that is designed to bolster Siniora's embattled government with cash from the West and Sunni Arab nations.
Many shops, schools, and businesses closed their doors – in some areas because people supported the strike, in others because barricades prevented them from getting to work.
Hizbullah has long decried sectarianism in Lebanese politics, despite being a Shiite resistance group. But even though the opposition alliance includes a prominent Christian faction, its demands have been interpreted by critics as a Shiite power grab.
"What is happening is a revolution and a coup attempt," Christian leader and former warlord Samir Geagea told Al Jazeera, according to Reuters. "This is direct terrorism to paralyze the country."
Tuesday, Hizbullah members controlled many opposition checkpoints efficiently, though not without menace. At one barricade on a road south of Beirut, toward the airport, a man broke a bottle against a concrete barrier to fashion a jagged-edged weapon.