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Originally published December 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 10, 2006 at 12:24 AM

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Beirut protest has international stakes

At first glance, this city's government and commercial district could be mistaken for a refugee camp, outdoor rock concert or Boy Scout...

BEIRUT — At first glance, this city's government and commercial district could be mistaken for a refugee camp, outdoor rock concert or Boy Scout Jamboree.

Tents are pitched in parking lots. Portable toilets and water tanks have sprouted around them. A stage with giant loudspeakers has been erected. Vendors have rows of food and drink stands. Campers sit, eat, read newspapers and talk.

The first impressions give way on closer inspection. Armed troops with armored vehicles have roadblocks around the camp. Barbed wire rings government buildings. Few people come or go from quiet high-rise bank buildings. Many businesses are closed. Upscale restaurants are bare of lunch crowds.

This is the incongruous heart of Lebanon's political crisis, which enters its 10th day today with no signs of abating.

The campers are supporters of the Shiite Muslim political and militant group Hezbollah and its allies. They demand that Prime Minister Fuad Saniora resign, and they vow to stay until Saniora's government is toppled and their demand for greater power in the government is met.

"We will stay until the government meets our demands and Saniora goes," says Abbas Ashkar, 42, an unemployed Shiite father of four who lives in Beirut and has joined the camp. "We weren't raised in castles and villas, so we can endure staying in tents a long time."

Lebanon's political crisis


Government opposition

Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group with a powerful militia, is the strongest force in the opposition.

Amal Movement became one of the most important Shiite Muslim militias during the Lebanese Civil War, with ties to the Islamic regime of Iran.

Free Patriotic Movement, led by Christian leader Michel Aoun, once opposed Syria's role in Lebanon but is now friendlier after it withdrew its forces from Lebanon.

Syria and Iran support both Hezbollah and Amal.

The government

Saad Hariri, the son and political heir of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is the dominant force in the government. His Sunni Muslim Future Movement heads the majority in parliament.

Fuad Saniora is the prime minister and is backed by Hariri and the U.S.

Walid Jumblatt is the leader of the Druze faction and supports Saniora.

Samir Geagea leads the Christian Lebanese Forces

All of the above form political alliance known as the March 14 movement forged last year to end Syrian influence in Lebanon after the assassination of Hariri's father.

Reuters

Saniora likened the protests to a coup last week and said he won't resign.

The stakes over who wins the standoff and has power in Lebanon's government are high and extend beyond Lebanon's internal politics.

Hezbollah supporters such as Ashkar and their various allies from Christian, socialist and pro-Syrian factions have brought their grievances to the center of political and economic power in Lebanon.

Across the way, between two campsites spread across Riad el Solh and Martyrs squares, the visage of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri looks down on the protesters from a large poster hanging from a tall building.

This commercial district is a result of the economic development that Hariri, a billionaire construction tycoon, spurred here after Lebanon's crushing civil war in 1975-91. Hariri was assassinated last year.

The contrasting images — a rich Sunni Muslim above and poor Shiite protesters in tents below — symbolize much of what the standoff is about: Lebanon's majority Shiites seeking power from those who dominate the government and the economy.

In an effort to focus on nationalism rather than politics, Hezbollah has encouraged its supporters to fly only Lebanon's national flag — red and white with a green cedar tree in the middle — not Hezbollah's yellow political party colors. It urges its allies to do the same.

"We cannot tell people what to wear, but we are all Lebanese, so we should fly the Lebanese flag," says Hezbollah spokesman Haj Abou Raja, 50.

Since Hezbollah's creation with Iranian patronage in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion, the Hezbollah movement, at least rhetorically, for many years tried to stay above politics, entering the Cabinet for the first time in 2005.

Hezbollah's transformation over the years marks one of the most striking transformations of any Islamic organization in the Middle East.

In its early years, it was notorious for imposing draconian restrictions in southern Lebanon — banning mixed sunbathing and women's swimsuits at beaches, closing coffee shops, and prohibiting parties and dancing.

Since then, it has evolved from a shadowy organization blamed for two attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks here, killing 241 soldiers, into a sprawling movement that fields a crack militia. It also serves in parliament and delivers welfare — from education to compensation for war damages — for its Shiite constituency, Lebanon's largest community.

Hezbollah demonstrates the same sort of organization and discipline at the protests that it displayed in its fight against Israel and its assistance to Lebanon's Shiite community.

Organizers have arranged for delivery of water, food and toilets to the campers living in the roughly 400 tents.

Hundreds of what Hezbollah calls discipline men who wear identifying badges control the swelling crowds and keep peace among protesters and with the Lebanese security forces and troops that line the perimeter.

The protests are rife with irony. In pursuit of its political aims, Hezbollah has employed tactics praised by the Bush administration when mass demonstrations took place after the assassination of Hariri in February 2005.

The Lebanese political crisis also risks creating a new proxy conflict between Shiite-dominated Iran, which supports Hezbollah, and Sunni Arab regimes allied with the U.S.

This battle is an extension of a similar struggle between Iran and Arab governments over the future of Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime until the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The two major Arab powers, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are leading the charge to ensure Saniora's government does not collapse.

Last weekend, a day after 800,000 people rallied in Beirut demanding Saniora's resignation, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned against "foreign powers," code for Iran and its ally, Syria, supporting Lebanese Shia and prompting Arab governments to support the Sunnis.

The growing ambitions of Iran, which wields great influence over the Shiite government in Iraq and over Hezbollah, is fueling tensions between Shiite and Sunnis throughout the region. Iran also supports the militant Sunni group Hamas, which swept Palestinian elections in January and now controls the government.

Arab rulers such as Mubarak, who ruthlessly suppress any sign of dissent in their countries, are worried that if the Lebanese government is toppled by Hezbollah's mass protests, that will embolden other Arab populations.

"The disconnect between Arab masses and their rulers is growing wider," said Mohammad Abdullah, a prominent Lebanese writer.

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