Hizballah’s Show of Strength Highlights the Government’s Weakness

On Scene: U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's grip on power is further eroded as hundreds of thousands in Beirut demand his ouster

The Hizballah security teams — identifiable by their combat boots, black fatigues and beards — that gathered Friday morning in the suburbs of Beirut didn’t need much of a pep talk to pump themselves up for their massive demonstration in Lebanon’s capital. “If the leadership says march, we march; if they say die, we die,” said one, who called himself Bakkir. Still, if they needed any reminder of why they were hitting the streets to bring down Lebanon’s government, Bakkir and his buddies could look around at the bomb craters and crushed concrete from this summer’s war with Israel. “[The government] betrayed us during the war with Israel,” said Bakkir.

The battle for control of Lebanon that began in earnest with Friday’s rally by hundreds of thousands of protesters in downtown Beirut is an aftershock of that war. Again and again, the packed crowd, the speakers on the podium in Riadh Al Solh Square, and the martial anthems played on a gigantic stereo system sounded the same theme, accusing the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of collaborating with Israel and the United States in their plans to redraw the map of the Middle East and bomb Hizballah into submission. Put simply by a Shi’ite schoolgirl from Baalbek: “This is an Israeli government and we want to make it fall.”

The opposition may be exaggerating Siniora’s ties to the United States, not to mention Israel. After all, Siniora did all he could to press his friends in Washington to demand an immediate cease-fire, but his pleas went unheeded. In what was perceived as a green light for Israel to continue its campaign in pursuit of a military victory over Hizballah, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice memorably told the Lebanese they were suffering “the birth pangs of a New Middle East.”

Where 2006 began with similar demonstrations against the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that ultimately forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in the “Cedar Revolution,” the year appears to be ending with the streets — and the political momentum — very much back in the hands of Syria’s allies. But nobody was talking about Syria on Friday; their concerns were the Lebanese government, and its backers, real and perceived.

Police officials estimated the crowd at about 800,000 people while, Hizballah claimed a cool million — about one quarter of the country’s population. Either way, the event bore Hizballah’s signature organizational flair. It’s security personnel, as many as 10,000 of them, lined up at every major intersection to prevent supporters from becoming too enthusiastic, or infiltrators from stirring up trouble. Marchers came from all over the country, many of them determined to stay in Beirut until the government collapses. Hizballah politicians promised an open-ended and escalating series of civil actions, from strikes at key national institutions to a moratorium on paying sales taxes and electricity bills. “We withstood 34 days war with Israeli,” said former Hizballah MP Mohmmed Berjawi. “We can stay here as long as it takes.”

The suffering inflicted by the Israeli bombing campaign, and the fact that Hizballah’s fighting forces emerged intact to claim a “Divine Victory” left Siniora’s government — and all Lebanese moderates associated with the U.S. — politically vulnerable. In negotiating a cease-fire, Siniora signed off on a U.S.-sponsored Security Council Resolution requiring the disarmament of Hizballah. That agreement may turn out to be the downfall of the Siniora government.

Hizballah is demanding the formation of a new government in which its opposition bloc would have effective veto power. And it’s certainly hard to see how Siniora can carry on with much authority after Friday’s show of strength by his opposition.

Equally ominous for Siniora would have been the sight of so many Lebanese Christians joining forces with Hizballah’s Shi’ite base. Followers of Maronite Christian leader General Michel Aoun formed a colorful stream that flowed into the out of Christian East Beirut and into the crowd at the rally, dressed in their trademark orange. Aoun, who has presidential ambitions, formed an alliance with Hizballah that has split Lebanon’s large Christian population, which has historically had strong ties to the U.S. and the West.

Looming unseen in the background, as always, is the 800 pound gorilla of Lebanon’s political system: Hizballah’s armed military wing, which has a weapons and capacity far beyond what any other political party or even the Lebanese army could muster. Hizballah has promised that all its actions will be peaceful. “We save our weapons for fighting Israel,” according to Bakkir. But any Lebanese politician that tries to get between Hizballah and its guns will likely go the way of the Phoenicans and the Romans.

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