Supporters of Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, have held violent demonstrations in protest against Hezbollah’s nomination of a candidate for the post of prime minister, a move that brings the group one step closer to controlling the government.
Lawmakers in Beirut voted on Tuesday to back Najib Mikati, the candidate Hezbollah had proposed, as a prime minister. He gained 68 votes to Hariri’s 60, putting the Hezbollah-led opposition in a position to form a government.
Demonstrations were called across the country, with thousands gathering in the northern city of Tripoli, and on the highway linking Beirut with the southern port city of Sidon. Hariri, the caretaker prime minister, held a national address after the protests calling for calm and rejecting violence in the public demonstrations.
Rula Amin, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Beirut, reported that the protests were “angry”, and that journalists were being targeted by the crowds.
|Protesters took to the streets, rejecting the proposal of Mikati as the country’s next prime minister [AFP]|
“We had a … transmission truck for Al Jazeera burnt down [in Tripoli]. The journalists who are there are being surrounded, they are being attacked [and] they are calling for help,” she said.
Al Jazeera later confirmed that the journalists who were surrounded at their building in Tripoli were able to get out safely, but the truck’s windsheld was smashed, before protesters set it on fire.
“It seems the frustration that is among the Hariri supporters is gaining momentum. However, it doesn’t seem like there is a plan. They don’t know how to get that frustration out,” Amin reported.
She said that protests in Beirut had been small, but they put residents on edge. Army tanks had been deployed in the capital.
“There has been a protest here [at the Kola intersection], you can see the burning tyres. A few dozen young men came around, burned the tyres, put garbage bins in the street, blocked the roads. A few army patrols also came, they tried to reopen the road. At some points they did, and other roads they left closed,” she said.
“For a ‘Day of Rage’, this [the Beirut protest] is still a small, contained, controlled protest.
“There is a lot of concern that this political crisis will turn violent, and that’s why people here are very concerned.”
Nevertheless, an Al Jazeera cameraman in Beirut was “harassed, and almost beaten. [Protesters] want journalists to get out of the area, they didn’t want any filming. And they went after even some international media present there”.
“As you can see, the protests are small [in Beirut] – however, most people today did not send their kids to school, and many people didn’t go to work. They are concerned, they don’t know how these protests will develop.”
Hariri appeals for calm
In his televised address to the nation, Hariri called for calm, telling supporters who resorted to violence to “reject [that] path”.
“I call you towards national unity, and there was never a day when my path was sectarian. The national path should above any other path, and anger should not be the resort,” he said.
“You are today an angry people, but you are a responsible people. You are responsible for the security of Lebanon and the security of life amongst Lebanese people.
“I understand the screams of anger … but this anger must not lead us towrds what is against [the national interest].
“Democracy is our refuge, and is something we should never give up.”
Al Jazeera’s Amin reported that Hariri’s supporters will likely heed his advice.
“Probably by the end of today … these protests will wane down, since he has come out and said that these protests are not in our interest,” she said.
She also said that his comments suggested that he had accepted that he would not be the prime minister for much longer, and that Mikati would suceed him.
Hariri also apologised for the attack on the Al Jazeera transmission truck in Tripoli.
Lawmakers back Mikati
Protests had earlier erupted in Sunni Muslim regions across Lebanon against the nomination of Mikati, a billionaire businessman, as Hezbollah’s favoured candidate to be the next prime minister on Monday.
Hezbollah, which draws its support mainly from Lebanon’s Shia Muslim community, has a powerful military wing as well as a parliamentary faction.
The decision by Hezbollah comes at the beginning of consultations headed by Michel Suleiman, the president, with parliamentary groups on appointing a new prime minister, after the group brought down the unity government earlier this month.
“It’s Mikati for sure,” Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, who last week became allied with Hezbollah, told the AFP news agency.
He also said Hezbollah secured a majority number of votes in the 128-member parliament to ensure the election of Mikati as its candidate to head the next government, in what Hariri supporters are calling a “coup”.
The 55-year-old Mikati, who served briefly as prime minister in 2005 and is close to Syria, said after meeting with Suleiman that if he is appointed, he would act as a consensual candidate representing all parties.
“I extend my hand to everyone,” he said. “If I am appointed, my actions will speak for themselves.”
Asked if Mikati could bring consensus in the Lebanese political sphere, Al Jazeera’s Amin said: “If anyone can, this man has the potential to do it.”
‘Day of rage’
Hezbollah’s decision to appoint Mikati prompted Sunni politicans to call for a “day of rage” throughout the country.
Protests erupted quickly in areas populated by Sunnis to express their rejection of what they called “Persian tutelage” over Lebanon – a reference to Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, said that protests were quick to break out after the announcement.
“People have come on to the streets, especially in strongholds of Saad Hariri, demonstrating against the selection of Mikati,” she said.
She said that several districts of northern Lebanon, as well as the port city of Tripoli, have seen protests by supporters of the March 14 coalition, led by Hariri.
The US has weighed in on the issue, with PJ Crowley, the state department spokesperson, saying that a possibly larger political role for Hezbollah in Lebanon’s government could complicate ties and impact its ongoing aid to the country.
Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, has pledged to include its political rivals in Lebanon’s next government if its candidate for prime minister won a parliamentary majority in an upcoming vote.
Nasrallah said on Sunday that Hezbollah and its allies want to form a national unity government, rather than seeking to govern alone.
However, Saad Hariri, who is standing for another term, has ruled out joining a government headed by a candidate appointed by Hezbollah, saying there was no such thing as a consensual candidate.
“There is a candidate named Saad Hariri, and then there is another candidate nominated by the opposition,” he said in a statement on Monday.
“Those are the only two choices.”
Hariri’s government collapsed when Hezbollah and its allies pulled out 11 ministers from the cabinet in a dispute over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is investigating the 2005 murder of Saad’s father and the country’s former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri.
Nasrallah, who has accused the Netherlands-based tribunal of being under US-Israeli control, has said he expects it will implicate Hezbollah members and warned of grave repercussions.
Many fear Hezbollah will react violently if its members are indicted, as is widely expected.