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Lebanon Political Crisis Continues as Anti-Government Protests Enter Fourth Day

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Thousands of demonstrators remain camped in the center of Beirut in an attempt to bring down the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. We go to Beirut to speak with Newsday’s Middle East bureau chief Mohamad Bazzi and Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of “Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Lebanon’s political crisis is continuing as demonstrators remain camped in the center of Beirut in an attempt to bring down the government. Thousands of supporters of Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies are on the streets calling for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government to go. Siniora is refusing to step down to make way for a government that would include more of Hezbollah’s allies. The protest started Friday when hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah supporters staged a massive rally in the center of Beirut. Demonstrators blocked the entrance to Siniora’s offices. More protesters joined the sit-in over the weekend and have vowed to stay there until Siniora and his ministers resign. On Sunday, Siniora denied his government is under siege.

PRIME MINISTER FOUAD SINIORA: Under siege? No, we are not under siege. No, no. The sit-in is fine. They are sitting there. They are expressing their right of expression. We respect them, and this is their right. At the same time, there are plenty other Lebanese, plenty, much more, who have a different opinion. We have to do our best in order to reconcile.

AMY GOODMAN: Many of the demonstrators accuse the prime minister of being too pro-Western and anti-Syrian and of failing the Lebanese people. This is one of those protesters, Ali Naser, speaking Sunday.

ALI NASER: [translated] The situation in Lebanon is unstable, and this is because of the politicians. There is supposed to be a solution. We are comprised of different sects, and every sect should have a fair representation in Parliament. If there is no solution, this will keep on happening every 10 or 15 years. So we would prefer that they sit down once and for all and come up with a grassroots solution.

AMY GOODMAN: The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, is visiting Beirut to offer to mediate between the government and the opposition. Tension has been building in Lebanon since six government ministers aligned with Hezbollah resigned and a seventh minister, Pierre Gemayel, was assassinated two weeks ago. There were clashes between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Beirut Saturday, in which one man was killed, at least 12 others wounded. The United States has denounced the protests and accused Syria and Iran of instigating them.

We’re joined right now on the phone by two guests in Beirut. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut, author of Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion. And Mohamad Bazzi is the Middle East bureau chief for Newsday.

Mohamad Bazzi, let’s begin with you. Can you describe what has transpired over the weekend with these massive protests of hundreds of thousands of people?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Well, every night since Friday, there has been a massive rally, and tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands. Certainly, on the first day it was hundreds of thousands. By some estimates it reached 800,000 people on Friday with the first rally. And every night since then, there’s been a massive rally, and there’s been several thousand people who’ve slept in tents outside the main government palace. By today, there’s about 400 tents that have been set out.

And this is being fueled certainly by Hezbollah supporters, but it’s also — another large element of this is supporters of General Michel Aoun, who is the former army commander, and he is a Maronite Christian. And his supporters are a large part of this. And that’s something that sometimes gets overlooked with the focus on Hezbollah. So, it’s not just a Shia protest. There’s a large Christian contingent. There are also some smaller Sunni Muslim parties that are taking part in this. And there are some other Christian factions involved. So it’s not a purely Hezbollah protest.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said, Mohamad Bazzi, Lebanon is on the edge of civil war, and you say it’s a conflict nurtured by foreign powers using local proxies. Who are these forces, and who are the foreign beneficiaries?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Well, the forces that are backing the government, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Cabinet, and they’ve been coming out very strongly in the last two days. Saudi Arabia is the prime Arab backer of this government, Egypt to a lesser extent, but they’ve been speaking very forcefully, and the United States, which has been criticizing these protests, and at one point it was calling this protest an attempted coup against the government, an attempt to remove a democratically elected government, as the State Department put it.

What’s very interesting, though, is if you compare the situation of this government, of Fouad Siniora’s government right now, to the situation a year and a half ago, when there were popular protests against the government of Omar Karami, who had also been democratically elected under the Lebanese system. He was elected by Parliament, just as Siniora’s government was approved by Parliament. And at that point, the West and many Arab governments had backed the same sorts of protest, same sorts of peaceful sit-ins and large-scale protests.

You know, Hezbollah, on their side, has a lot of support from Syria and Iran. And so, you have a situation where each — you had Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, making quite a stark warning about this, that we might have a situation in Lebanon again where foreign powers will choose sides and support them against one another.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamad Bazzi is with Newsday. We are also joined in Beirut by Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who is the author of Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion. Your analysis, do you share what — Mohamad Bazzi’s observations?

AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB: Yes, I think he painted a very accurate picture of the nature of the protest movement here, as well as the different sides involved. However, I think —- you know, I’d like to elaborate a bit on that and say that from the opposition’s standpoint, you know, when we talk about the different powers involved here or the different sides that stand much to benefit from the resolution of this conflict, I mean, basically you do have the U.S., which is strongly backing [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: Amal, are you there?

AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB: Yes. Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: We can now, but somehow you moved or something on your cellphone.

AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB: Oh, sorry. OK. Yes, you know, basically the opposition believes that the government has been not only supported by the United States, but also been instructed not to step down and been told to stand their ground. So in that sense, they see the government as being instrumentalized by the Bush administration, by Western powers.

And on the other hand, when we talk about Iran and Syria’s involvement, I think we should point out here that, yes, while Hezbollah does enjoy a very strong strategic relationship with Iran and Syria, other elements in the opposition don’t, such as Michel Aoun, whom Mohamad spoke about earlier. In fact, Michel Aoun fought a lengthy war to drive Syria out of Lebanon in the past. In fact, his supporters, his Christian supporters, are ardently anti-Syrian. So it isn’t so much a case of, you know, an anti- versus pro-Syrian divide. I think it’s more accurate to describe it as an anti-American versus pro-American political divide at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, how does Iraq fit into this picture right now? I mean, you just had President Bush in Amman meeting with Nouri Maliki. How does that impact this?

AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB: I mean, it impacts on Syria and Iran, but much less so on Lebanon, I think. I think too much has been made of the link between, you know, Syria’s involvement in Iraq and Iran’s ability to, you know, make progress there with the situation here in Lebanon. I think the forces here in Lebanon are a lot more autonomous than is similarly seen. I don’t really understand the nature of your question, actually, what Iraq has to do with Lebanon and, you know, [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: The impact of the war in Iraq on Lebanon.

AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB: Oh, you mean the Sunni-Shiite divide.

AMY GOODMAN: That being a part of it. Just any aspect of that.

AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB: Yeah. Well, I mean, of course there are many — there was a lot of fear, a bit of hysteria, you know, in the media about the Sunni-Shiite war, basically, you know, there being a spillover here in Lebanon, and I think that is an exaggeration. I mean, the situation here surely does have some sectarian characteristics. It’s no longer Christian-Muslim, but, you know, basically Sunni-Shiite to some extent. But it is also more political than sectarian, I think, and it has very little to do with Iraq. In fact, it has more to do with the assassination of the late prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and the Sunni community blaming Syria, while Hezbollah continues to pledge its support to Syria, strategically speaking. So that has been the main cause of this divide, and not so much this fear of a Shiite crescent looming in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: And Mohamad Bazzi, the effect of the war in Lebanon, the effect of the Israeli bombing just a few months ago on what we’re seeing today?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: That’s had a great effect, and I think it’s made a lot of — certainly a lot of Shia angry at the government, at Siniora’s government, because here you had a U.S.-backed government that basically couldn’t get the United States to agree to a quick ceasefire. And a lot of people remember that. A lot of people hold that against Siniora’s government. Siniora argues that he should be given credit for eventually getting a ceasefire arranged through a lot of Arab mediation. But a lot of Shia, especially, see it as a failure of his government, which was so strongly backed by the United States, and it wasn’t able to get a ceasefire until 34 days into the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Time magazine is reporting that the prime minister and a number of members of his Cabinet are holed up in the Ottoman-era compound. They’re barricaded there since November 21st, when gunmen killed the industry minister, when they assassinated Pierre Gemayel in broad daylight.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: I think the prime minister has been in that palace for much of the time since the Israel-Hezbollah war over the summer. I think he moved in there in July to make it easier to work. I sense some of this has been exaggerated with the government, the entire government being holed up in that palace. It’s true that some of the ministers did move in there after Gemayel’s assassination, and there was a concern that all the ministers be present for the meeting that approved the U.N. tribunal. But some of that — the whole idea that they’re kind of cowering in this palace might be a little exaggerated.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the U.N. tribunal.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: This is a tribunal to try suspects in Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the February 2005 assassination of the former prime minister. There has been a long U.N. investigation into this assassination, and we still don’t have a final report into that assassination, but there’s now movement at the U.N. Security Council to start this tribunal that would try suspects, and it would have an international character, and it would be held outside of Lebanon with a mix of international judges and some Lebanese judges.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, the level of violence right now, a Shia Muslim Lebanese man shot dead at a Sunni neighborhood on Sunday, as he returned from a third day of protest — do you see increasing violence or not?

AMAL SAAD-GHORAYEB: Well, I think, you know, these clashes were inevitable. I mean, when we talk about Lebanon being on the brink of civil war, I don’t think many people actually believe it will spiral out of control, but that it will remain in some kind of state of limbo, in between peace and war, and I think that would basically mean clashes here and there. And I think for a demonstration of that magnitude — you know, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people here and on a daily basis — if not hundreds of thousands, as Mohamad said, tens of thousands — that it would be inevitable that there would be clashes, you know, daily clashes perhaps with one or more people being injured. But I think that’s still quite a relatively low level of violence, considering the very dangerous environment we’re in and the highly polarized and politically charged situation the society and political system finds itself in.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mohamad Bazzi, in the wake of what happened this summer and the Israeli bombing, particularly in southern Lebanon, but all over, and the issue of cluster bombs, what is happening in that respect, even with this government, and also the difference in the response between the current Lebanese government and Hezbollah in dealing with recovery and dealing with rebuilding?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Well, Hezbollah moved much more quickly in getting a plan, setting a plan for reconstruction and recovery in the Shia-dominated areas, both in South Beirut and in southern Lebanon. It made payments to families and homeowners who had lost their houses. They received payments that would help them rent an apartment or a house for a year and buy some furniture. That was all done by Hezbollah independently of the government.

There was a plan presented by Siniora to — sort of an overall plan for reconstruction of the devastated areas. But with this political crisis, as far as I can tell, that plan has basically ground to a halt. There’s not much going on with it. Hezbollah is continuing some of its reconstruction work in the very, very early stages.

On cluster bombs, there’s a lot of U.N. involvement and a lot of international NGOs involved. That’s going ahead in the south. It’s rather slow. There are people who complain, especially farmers, who complain that they have been told that the teams, the clearing teams, may not get to their lands for a year or so. And that’s causing a serious problem, where people are hiring basically inexperienced labor, just people to clear these cluster bombs for them, and that’s causing a lot of serious injuries. And just inexperienced people trying to deal with this is a very bad idea.

AMY GOODMAN: And the United Nations accusing Israel of actually planting landmines this summer?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Yes, that came out a few weeks ago. Initially it was thought that it was mostly — the problem was just cluster bombs, but there has been a U.N. report that there were new mines planted in addition to the thousands of mines that had existed in South Lebanon during the time of Israeli occupation up until 2000. So there’s a new set of mines, and the U.N. and the Lebanese government want maps that show where these mines are.

AMY GOODMAN: And the top Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, Dan Halutz, saying he gave explicit orders not to fire into populated areas, cluster bombs?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: That came out a few weeks ago, as well. It’s hard to know what to make of that, since, you know, it might be an attempt by him to — you know, he’s under review by this military commission that’s reviewing his conduct and the conduct of all the senior military officials in the war, and that might be an attempt for him to avoid some responsibility and to avoid pressure to resign. It could also be an indication that there was some breakdown in the chain of command and that local commanders were taking decisions. But if that’s the case, then that’s really serious.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Mohamad Bazzi, joining us from Beirut, he is _Newsday_’s Middle East bureau chief. And also thank you to Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, the visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut, author of Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion.

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