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2005-03-01

Pro Syrian Lebanese Government Resigns Amid Mass Street Protests

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In an unexpected move, the Prime Minister of Lebanon announced his resignation in front of the country’s parliament Monday, effectively terminating the rule of the current Syrian-backed government, as tens of thousands of protesters demonstrated outside. We go to Beirut to get a report. [includes rush transcript]

In an unexpected move, Lebanese Prime Minister, Omar Karami, announced his resignation in front of the country’s parliament Monday, effectively terminating the rule of the current Syrian-backed government.

The announcement was aired live on television and greeted with cheers from tens of thousands of Lebanese protesters gathered outside the parliament building in defiance of a government ban on demonstrations. They waved Lebanese flags and demanded that Syria remove its 15,000 (fifteen thousands) troops from the country. Protesters left in the early hours of Tuesday only for a few hundred to return hours later, vowing to keep up their street protests until Syrian withdrew its forces. While the protests have been widspread, Shi’ite Muslims who form Lebanon’s largest community, have mainly stayed away from the anti-Syrian rallies.

The resignation of the cabinet came two weeks after the killing of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. Both Karami’s government and the Syrian government have been accused of involvement in Hariri’s assassination–charges they deny.

In his announcement, Karami said, "I am keen the government will not be a hurdle in front of those who want the good for this country. I declare the resignation of the government that I had the honor to head. May God preserve Lebanon." His announcement came as an opposition-sponsored motion of no-confidence in the government was being debated in parliament.

The government will stay on as caretakers while President Emile Lahoud consults on a new administration. The immediate reaction from Syria, which backs the Lebanese government, was non-committal, saying only that it was "an internal affair" for Lebanon. Meanwhile, the White House hailed the move as a step towards democracy. This is White House Press Secretary Scott Mcllelan.

  • Scott McLellan, White Press Secretary, February 28, 2005.

White House Press Secretary Scott Mcllelan. After Karami"s announcement, Beirut"s English-language nespaper, the Daily Star newspaper wrote in an editorial "Electricity is in the air. Beirut is a sea of excitement, and activity and turmoil. The word "revolution" is on many lips."

  • Kate Seelye, freelance reporter based in Beirut.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: We are closely watching developments with great interest. The resignation of the Karami government represents an opportunity for the Lebanese people to have a new government that is truly representative of their country’s diversity. The new government will have the responsibility of implementing free and fair elections that the Lebanese people have clearly demonstrated they desire. We believe the process of a new government should proceed in accordance with the Lebanese constitution and should be free of all foreign interference. It is time for Syria to fully comply with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. That means Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel need to leave the country. That will help ensure that elections are free and fair.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. After Karami’s announcement, the Daily Star newspaper wrote in an editorial, quote: "Electricity is in the air. Beirut is a sea of excitement and activity and turmoil. The word revolution is on many lips." We go now to Beirut to freelance reporter Kate Seelye. Kate, first, can you tell us where you are?

KATE SEELYE: Well, Amy, I live in Gemmayze; it’s a neighborhood very close to Martyrs Square, where Hariri was buried and at the site of the demonstrations and protests that have been taking place for the last two weeks. I’m sort of living right in the middle of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the latest developments, the resignation of the Prime Minister and the response?

KATE SEELYE: Well, his resignation was met with jubilation throughout most of the country last night. There had been tens of thousands of people gathered in Martyrs Square during the course of the — yesterday’s parliamentary debate, which had been called to demand an investi — a fair investigation into the Hariri assassination and also to demand the resignation of Omar Karami. Thousands had come out to support the opposition politicians demands, and at the end of this session when Karami made the surprise announcement, as you mentioned, thousands of people cheered wildly and [incomprehensible] began to party all night long in the streets of Beirut, celebrating what many saw as a victory for the Lebanese people. For many Lebanese, this was the first time that they felt their voice had really been heard, and it was a very exciting and giddy feeling for most here.

AMY GOODMAN: I know that the wife of Hariri did not allow the Prime Minister to attend her husband’s funeral. What evidence is there that he or Syria was involved?

KATE SEELYE: There is no evidence, but the feeling here is that a blast of such magnitude could not have been masterminded without the — the knowledge of the Syrian intelligence, and the Lebanese intelligence were closely aligned with the Syrians. This was a 300 or 700 pound ex — bo — bomb that was possibly planted under the road. The sense is that this could not have been the work of a rogue group. There’s also feeling here that the Syrians have had a long history of assassinating Lebanese politicians who don’t agree with their policies or who don’t kow-tow; and the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, had been making — there had been signs in the weeks leading up to his assassination that he was turning toward the Lebanese opposition, which had been calling for Syria’s withdrawal. Many people feel that the Syrians just couldn’t stomach the fact that somebody with his — his influence, his power, his connections, and his weight as a Sunni Muslim would join the opposition, better to get rid of him. So, of course, this is all speculation, but it’s based, as I said, on a long history of Syrian interference in Lebanese political affairs.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Kate Seelye, freelance reporter in Beirut, about the latest news, the resignation of the Prime Minister of Lebanon. What happens right now?

KATE SEELYE: Well, next, the president, President Lahoud, must form an interim government; so he will hold consultations with members of Parliament to form that interim government. Of course, that interim government is key to the future of Lebanon, and what’s happening behind closed doors right now as we speak is that members of Lebanon’s political opposition are meeting to determine what kind of interim government they want to see and what role they will play in influencing Lahoud and the Lebanese Parliament’s decision making, vis-a-vis this interim government. I was just at a meeting of Christian opposition members. They, of course, are calling for a neutral, independent, interim government, one that can be trusted to prepare for parliamentary elections this spring, either in April or May. There are debates going on as to who should be the next Prime Minister of Lebanon. Some would like to see Hariri’s sister, Bahia Hariri, herself a member of parliament, as the first Arab female prime minister. Others are — are naming other well-known Sunni politicians as possible candidates. So, we’re still in the early days. It remains to be seen what kind of interim government will be formed; but there’ll be a lot of haggling, I would imagine, in the next few days.

AMY GOODMAN: Kate Seelye, thanks very much for joining us, reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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