Sunnis launch 'Day of Rage' to protest Hezbollah's 'soft coup' in Lebanon

A Hezbollah-backed billionaire is poised to become prime minister, edging out Saad Hariri, whose government collapsed after Hezbollah ministers withdrew in protest two weeks ago.

With Lebanon on the brink of getting a new government – one dominated by the militant Shiite group, Hezbollah, rather than acting Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Sunni bloc – Sunni supporters of Mr. Hariri staged a series of nationwide demonstrations and strikes today.

As hundreds of protesters converged on streets of mainly Sunni-populated districts and towns, Lebanese lawmakers met with President Michel Suleiman for a second day of consultations on selecting a new prime minister after the resignation of Hezbollah ministers forced Mr. Hariri's government to collapse two weeks ago.

Hariri, whose father's 2005 assassination is the focus of a tribunal that has divided Lebanon and angered Hezbollah, had sought to regain the premiership.

But by early afternoon it was clear that the two-horse race had been narrowly won by Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman from Tripoli who is close to the Syrian leadership and is backed by the Hezbollah-led parliamentary opposition.

In Lebanon, convention states that prime ministers must be drawn from the Sunni sect. Although Mr. Mikati is a political moderate and is offering himself as a consensus candidate, his backing for the premiership by Hezbollah has left many Sunnis feeling that the new prime minister has been imposed by a Shiite organization in disregard of Hariri, who is the leading Sunni political figure in Lebanon.

“The head of the Sunnis is being isolated, without regard for the opinion of the political group he represents,” says Oqab Sakr, a member of Hariri’s party, the Future Movement. “The nomination of Mikati is neither a democratic step nor a compromise.”

Protesters with pistols tucked in their pants

Hariri’s supporters had promised a “Day of Rage” for Tuesday consisting of demonstrations and strikes. The Lebanese Army was on full alert and deployed into sensitive flash-point areas. The protests were noisy but generally peaceful, despite isolated reports of gunshots and some television crews being beaten.

At the Cola intersection in central Beirut, protesters set fire to tires and overturned garbage containers with thick plumes of black smoke rising into the blue sky. Some of them wore ski masks and a few had pistols stuffed into the waistbands of their trousers. Lebanese troops watched from a distance, but then moved in to disperse the crowd and attempt to douse the fires.

“The [Shiites] pretend that they are our brothers, but then they stab us in the back,” said one protester, identifying himself only as Ibrahim. “We won’t leave the streets until Saad Hariri is prime minister.”

'A new intifada'

Others said the demonstrations were a new “independence intifada,” a reference to the mass protests in Beirut in the spring of 2005 following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and Saad’s father. The rallies six years ago coupled with international pressure forced neighboring Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

"God willing, this will be a new intifada,” said a young man calling himself Abu Bakr. “They [Hezbollah] are waging a war against the Sunnis. Nasrallah and Israel are our enemies,” he added, referring to Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader.

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