Hezbollah-backed candidate chosen as Lebanese PM; Hariri supporters cry foul

Beirut–Violent protests erupted across Lebanon on Tuesday as a Hezbollah-backed candidate was chosen as its next prime minister, plunging the country further into turmoil.

Four demonstrators were injured in clashes in Beirut, Tripoli and in other cities as supporters of ousted Prime Minister Saad Hariri took to the streets on what his partisans dubbed a “day of rage.”

Tripoli saw the fiercest protests, with hundreds gathered in the city’s main thoroughfare waving banners and chanting anti-Hezbollah slogans. In several Beirut neighborhoods, gangs of young people burned garbage, blocked roads and fired guns in the air.

Najib Miqati, former prime minister and one of Lebanon’s wealthiest business tycoons, won 68 nominations for the post compared to 60 for Hariri, just over one week since the country’s fragile coalition cabinet collapsed following the resignation of 11 opposition ministers over mounting hostility towards a UN-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of former statesman Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.

Miqati announced the outcome following two days of consultations between President Michel Sleiman and MPs. “All Lebanese leaders should cooperate together to face the current challenges,” he said. “I reiterate my position that my hand is extended to all factions to take part and end division…through dialogue.”

Hariri’s western-backed 14 March coalition accused rival pro-Syrian 8 March figures of staging a "coup" and urged supporters to take to the streets in protest. Many believe Miqati will seek to form a cabinet aimed at de-legitimizing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and cut its Lebanese funding. Hezbollah members are expected to be named in tribunal indictments, released last week, while Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to “cut the hand” of anyone targeting the Shiite party.

Fadia Kiwan, head of political sciences at St. Joseph University, said the security situation was likely to worsen as the political crisis dragged on.

“The situation has deteriorated even though Miqati has been mandated with preparing a government. He will not succeed because 14 March needs time to accept the fact that things have changed and the balance of power has shifted,” she told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“I am really concerned about clashes between the two groups–unfortunately we have to be blunt–between Sunni and Shiite," she added. "It only needs a spark for either side to begin attacks.”

Several members of the media were attacked by mobs of young men, with an Al Jazeera television van set on fire in Tripoli, although no one was injured. One man was seriously wounded by gunfire at a demonstration in the western town of Bar Elias, near Zahle.

Elias Hanna, retired Lebanese Army general and political lecturer at the American University of Beirut, said that protests were designed to exert pressure on Hezbollah.

“The protests have a process. If Hariri is logical, [these protests] need to continue for at least 72 hours to have the desired effect. The stakes for Hezbollah are high, so the opposition cannot allow Hariri to return,” Hanna said.

He added that a Hezbollah-led cabinet would endanger Lebanon’s international standing, with the US in particular likely to drop its support for Beirut in the face of a Hezbollah-led government.

“Hezbollah is pulling a May 2008, but constitutionally,” Hanna said in reference to the clashes that broke out three years ago in west Beirut between Hezbollah and pro-government gunmen.

“They are transforming their military might into political might. This is a coup de grace for US interests in Lebanon. Israel is always prepared for war, but they will be happy that Hezbollah is being more and more hated by people on the street in Lebanon.”

Miqati received several votes from MPs belonging to one-time Hariri ally Walid Jumblatt, who heads the Druze Progressive Socialist Party.

Amal Saad Ghorayeb, research adviser for the Doha Institute think-tank, said that protesters' anger was primarily directed against Jumblatt and others seen by Hariri’s supporters as turncoats.

“Hariri didn’t expect Hezbollah to go ahead and form a government on its own, and I’m not sure they expected Jumblatt’s about-face,” Ghorayeb told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Most of the anger is not being shown against the opposition per se, but against Hariri’s former allies. This is reassuring from the perspective of polarization, but the situation is unprecedented.”

The Lebanese press, meanwhile, has been divided on the outcome of the negotiations.

The pro-opposition Al-Akhbar, in a piece published Tuesday, accused 14 March figures of refusing to accept defeat.

“Within a few hours, 14 March had taken off its ugliest masks and had decided to maintain its power at any price,” the paper said. “Hariri wanted life to stop all over the country so he could return to power. He started asking merchants to strike and factories to shut down and no longer cared if there was electricity in the country if he wasn’t in power.”

The Hariri-owned Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, while condemning the spontaneous protests, asserted that Hezbollah and its members were guilty of bullying the majority.

“The mandatory parliamentary consultations were transformed through maliciousness, pillage and armed threats, from a constitutional operation to a battle of elimination and open confrontation,” the paper wrote. “All indicators showed that the policies of suppression have reached a red line.”

The STL has said it expects Lebanon to continue providing its share of court funding, irrespective of who holds power in Beirut–although it is likely that the first item on an opposition government’s agenda would be to end official support for the tribunal.

Ghorayeb warned that the nature of sectarian tension in Lebanon made its immediate future highly unstable.

“We are talking about an emotional and sectarian response. When you enter this realm, it is hard to predict what will come,” she said.

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