Protestors in Lebanon Demand Resignation of Prime Minister Saniora
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JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony, this was clearly a major demonstration you witnessed today. How seriously is it being taken by people you’re talking to, in terms of its potential impact on Lebanon’s future?
ANTHONY SHADID: I think it’s being taken very seriously in Lebanon here. There is a sense that this crisis has escalated pretty dramatically; in some ways, it’s become a popular confrontation with what we saw today, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in downtown Beirut.
Thousands have vowed to stay until the government falls. You know, there is a sense of this crisis building, of this crisis escalating. Neither side necessarily sees a way out of it. In fact, there isn’t a way out without one side winning or losing.
But I think what’s more dramatic for a lot of people in Lebanon is that we’re seeing even two faces of the country, actually, face-to-face right now. We’re seeing, you know, the Lebanon that might be represented by Hezbollah, its political culture, its perspective on life, its ideology, up against a government that represents a very different perspective of Lebanon, one more accommodationist, in some ways, of Israel, for instance, one more Western and backed by the United States and France.
It is a contest between two very different countries at this point.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the opposition was first demanding more power in the government. Are they now demanding — the people you talk to — to actually bring down the government? And do they think they can do it?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, there’s perhaps still a compromise out there, some kind of reformulation of the cabinet that would give Hezbollah more power. What Hezbollah has been seeking for it and its allies is basically what they call a blocking third. It would be a third of the cabinet that would allow them to veto any government decision they disagreed with.
The government has obviously rejected that; they’re opposed to that idea. At this point, Hezbollah says it’s not going to end these protests until it does force the government to resign, force it to formulate a new cabinet.
Now, you know, as recently as yesterday, the prime minister said that — he rejected that flatly. He said it was an attempted coup, and he was not going to accept Hezbollah’s demands.
There is a question of, you know, again, where this goes. Can Hezbollah actually bring about enough pressure to force the government to resign? It’s going to play out over probably days, even weeks. And right now there is that sense. I mean, the streets are very loud, even right now with thousands of people down there. They’re going to stay put there for at least, you know, at least the short term.
Influence in the military
JEFFREY BROWN: I understand today there was a large military and police presence. How much support does Prime Minister Siniora have in the military and, for that matter, in the public at large?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, the military seems local to the government. There's not a lot of question about that. Like you pointed out, there were thousands of people, thousands of soldiers and police in the streets today.
The government headquarters, which is known as the Serail, was basically barricaded between coils of barbed wire and metal barricades. Protestors didn't try to pass through the barricades or to march on the government headquarters itself; that's probably a good thing.
The government headquarters right now is home to actually the prime minister and several ministers who have kind of taken up residence there amid the uncertainty. There's been a lot of unease out there, a lot of anxiety.
There was an assassination of a government minister last week, and I think there's a fear among a lot of people that the protests may not be the only dramatic moment that we see in the weeks ahead.
Threats to the government
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there was apparently an intent today to keep things nonviolent. Did it actually play out that way? And is there a fear it may go in the other direction at any moment?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it did. It was actually -- it was quite -- in some ways, it was quite festive today, the protest, dancing, singing, clapping. There wasn't a lot of anger out there, although, of course, their demands are very stark. I mean, we're talking about the resignation of the government.
But there was a kind of a carnival-like atmosphere, almost, among the protestors. It began about 12:00 noon and then pretty much dissipated by 5:00 or 6:00. But like I said, there's still thousands of people down there right now, and they're keeping up -- it's still pretty lively.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned the assassination only about 10 days ago of Pierre Gemayel. Are there fears that others in the government may be still targets?
ANTHONY SHADID: There are fears, and that's been talked about a lot. You know, we continue to hear about confrontations in the streets, for instance. We continue to hear about lists that might be circulating of other ministers who would be assassinated.
There's a lot of rumor at this point. And I think, you know, given the crisis, given how pitched the crisis is, these rumors are probably going to probably gather in the days ahead. We're probably going to hear a lot more rumors.
You know, right now, the situation feels, you know, relatively calm. You know, we did expect this protest, and this protest played out. I think it's more, what's the next step? How will Hezbollah try to put even more pressure on the government at this point?
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post, thanks again.
ANTHONY SHADID: My pleasure.