editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper and an internationally syndicated political columnist and author. He is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
An estimated 300,000 demonstrators rallied in Beirut Wednesday to mark the second anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The rally came one day after a pair of bus bombings killed three people and wounded at least 20. We go to Lebanon to speak with columnist and author Rami Khouri. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In Lebanon, tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in Beirut Wednesday to mark the second anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The rally came one day after a pair of bus bombings killed three people and wounded at least 20. The crowd packed into Martyr’s Square in Beirut’s city center where Hariri is buried. Speaking from behind bulletproof glass, the former prime minister’s son, Saad Hariri, called for approval of a U.N. tribunal to try those suspected of killing his father.
Razor wire, tanks and thousands of security forces separated the pro-government supporters from opposition groups just blocks away. The Hezbollah-led opposition has been holding daily sit-ins in front of the Parliament for months demanding the government’s resignation. The government hoped a large turnout for the rally would strengthen its position and put an end to its daily demonstrations. To enable a big attendance, it declared Wednesday a national holiday, closing schools, universities, banks and public institutions.
For more, we’re joined on the phone from Beirut by Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star newspaper and internationally syndicated political columnist and author, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University in Beirut. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rami Khouri.
RAMI KHOURI: Thank you. Glad to be with you again.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Describe what happened yesterday at the mass protest and also the day before the bombings.
RAMI KHOURI: Well, the protests yesterday were not tens of thousands, as you said, but actually hundreds of thousands. It was an enormous rally, but it’s not the first time this has happened. This is the third or fourth time that hundreds of thousands of people have come out to demonstrate for the government, and with every new demonstration like this, it seems to have a little bit less significance, because it becomes a little bit more routine.
But the really significant thing now is you’ve got both the pro-government forces and the opposition groups led by Hezbollah and their allies, both out in the streets, in big demonstrations, rallies, in the media, in the political system, and they’re pretty evenly matched. They’re both supported by significant foreign support from the Americans, from the Iranians, from the Syrians. Different sides have different support — Saudi, as well — and there’s a bit of a stalemate in the political process. And so, these public events, these mass demonstrations are increasingly less significant. What’s more important is the behind-the-scenes mediation that’s being attempted now by mainly the Iranians and the Saudis and the Arab League secretary-general.
The danger is that, as we saw the day before with the bombings of the two bus bombings, is — which killed civilians, unlike the 16 other bombs in the last two years, which have targeted individuals, mostly Christian, mostly anti-Syrian figures — this one was targeted randomly at civilians and killed three people and injured 20, and this really scares the daylights out of people, because it means that anybody now is in danger. And it also has a rather macabre symbolism, because of the civil war in 1975 started with an attack on a bus, a Palestinian bus, and that sparked the civil war in Lebanon. So there’s a tense situation. It’s fragile. It’s vulnerable. It’s volatile. It could be set off by an agent provocateur deliberately or just accidentally or by some young kids, thugs, gangs, excited guys running around in the street with sticks, as they did two weeks ago. So it’s a very, very difficult situation for the moment.
But I think there is a sense that the evenly matched political balance of both sides has to push them to some kind of political compromise. The difficulty is that the local issues here in Lebanon can’t be separated from the regional ones with Syria and Israel and Saudi Arabia and Palestine and others, and those can’t be separated from the more global ones, mainly pitting the Iranians against the Americans. So it’s a very complex, convoluted situation, but this is the modern Middle East, and I think the chickens of the last six decades are coming home to roost.
AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, last week the U.N. signed an accord that would create an international tribunal to try suspects in the killing of the former Prime Minister Hariri. What is the Parliament doing about this, and is Hezbollah opposing this?
RAMI KHOURI: Well, the government is clearly for it. Public opinion in Lebanon is clearly for it, on both sides. Even the opposition people say they don’t have a problem with the tribunal principle and holding accountable whoever killed Hariri and the other people who were assassinated, but Hezbollah has raised questions about some of the technical provisions, some of the technical clauses about who actually can be held responsible and how far back in time can people be ensnared in this process. The concerns of Hezbollah are reasonably legitimate. I think most people think that they’re pretty valid concerns that need to be addressed, and the government has said so, more or less. They’re willing to sit down and talk about the technicalities.
What’s unknown is, is Hezbollah doing this really for legal punctilio, or is it doing it because it’s trying to protect the Syrians, because everybody assumes in Lebanon that this court is going to basically nab people who are in the Syrian government or security services or close to them or allied to them, and people just don’t know if Hezbollah is doing this to protect the Syrians or for its own concerns. This is one of the big issues in Lebanon now, the distrust of Hezbollah by many Lebanese who are not sure if it’s really just advocating Syrian and Iranian positions or really working for the benefit of the Lebanese, and this is one of the big issues, the lack of trust that has caused this crisis.
But the tribunal will go ahead. I mean, the Lebanese Parliament has not met, because the head of Parliament is allied with Hezbollah. He’s a Shiite, and he’s close to Hezbollah. And he has not called the Parliament to meet. The president of the republic is on the side of the Syrians. So there’s a stalemate. That’s why the government pushed ahead with it, approved it in the cabinet and sent it to the U.N. If it’s not formally endorsed through the constitutional mechanisms here, with the cabinet, the president and the Parliament doing it, approving it, then there’s the expectation that it will go into the Security Council again under Chapter 7, which means it will be done by the global community, and it will be enforced, even no matter what the Lebanese do.
AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, what about U.S. involvement in Lebanon, the extent of the support for the Siniora government and the opposition to Hezbollah?
RAMI KHOURI: U.S. support really is mixed, in terms of how people perceive it. The U.S. spoke out very strongly for Lebanon’s sovereignty and democracy, you know, a year and a half ago or a year ago, when the U.S. was happy to see popular sentiment push the Syrians out of Lebanon. And the U.S. strongly supported the Siniora government, but then during the war last summer, the United States’s proven support for sovereignty, independence, democracy and stability of Lebanon suddenly took the back seat to what seemed to be all-out American support for Israel in its war against Hezbollah. The U.S. gave Israel the time, the diplomatic cover, the ammunition, the fuel and almost anything else it wanted to hit Hezbollah really hard, which the United States saw as its own strategic benefit, as well, to hit Hezbollah hard, Hezbollah being a close ally of Iran.
So people here really started thinking very hard about, well, is the U.S. serious when it talks about supporting Lebanon’s sovereignty and prosperity, or is this just empty political rhetoric and maybe part of the American political contest now for president or just part of the Bush II administration’s rhetoric about promoting freedom? So there’s concern about how serious the United States is.
I think the more important thing is that the U.S.'s strong support for the Siniora government now, in terms of political rhetoric, money, armaments, training for the security services and the army, that strong support cannot be seen in isolation. What you have now all across the region — I think it's pretty clear — is an American fallback position, in terms of the retreat from Iraq having already started — in political terms, not in military terms. But in political terms, the United States has pulled back and has stood its — circled the wagons and decided that it’s going to confront the Iranians everywhere in this region — in Lebanon, in Palestine, and Sudan and Somalia. And everywhere that the Iranians are supporting Islamists or other groups, the U.S. is supporting the pro-Western governments. And this is the new Cold War that we see going on in the region, and I think American support for the Siniora government has to be seen in that wider regional context. It’s a process that’s just started, and I think it will play itself out for some time.
AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, I want to thank you very much for being with us, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, internationally syndicated political columnist. Thank you for joining us from Beirut.