An explosion in a residential area of the Lebanese capital has caused several deaths and dozens of injuries.
BEIRUT – The tone was defiant as several hundred opponents of the Lebanese government gathered here in the capital for a protest one day after a car bomb exploded in the heart of east Beirut, killing three, including a senior intelligence chief.
One by one, a litany of politicians stepped to the microphone to denounce Najib Mikati, the prime minister.
They blamed him for the explosion that killed Wissam al-Hassan, the head of the intelligence service of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces.
Hassan has long been close to the March 14 coalition of political parties led by Saad Hariri, former prime minister, which organised the rally.
Speakers accused Mikati and his March 8 alliance of opening Lebanon to Syrian interference, and after the rally dozens of people marched to the parliament to demand that he step down.
“Mikati’s resignation is the beginning of dignity for Lebanon, of freedom … and of justice for Wissam al-Hassan,” one speaker thundered.
It was a chance to vent for supporters of March 14, which has spent the last 16 months in the political wilderness. They showed their frustration in the streets, too, blocking several major roads in the capital with burning tyres.
Despite the strong rhetoric, the coalition also showed signs that it is wary about plunging Lebanon into a period of political uncertainty.
Mikati held an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday, and afterwards said it would be the wrong time for him to resign, because it would “create chaos”.
The reaction from March 14 was muted: Hariri urged a massive turnout for Hassan’s funeral on Sunday, but also asked his supporters not to block the roads.
Tawfiq al-Hindi, a politician from the Lebanese Forces party who attended the rally, suggested that the coalition’s bid to remove Mikati would mostly continue behind the scenes.
“The position of March 14 is that we must replace this government. This is very clear,” he said.
“If he will not go … then we will continue with our political protest.”
Friday’s explosion, which left nearly 100 people injured, tore through a residential area in Ashrafiyeh, a predominantly Christian district.
Residents were slowly returning to the area on Saturday, sweeping up broken glass and assessing the damage to their homes.
Connecting the dots
Many here believe that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was behind the bombing.
Hassan was the man behind the arrest of Michel Samaha, a former information minister and longtime friend to the Syrian government; he was detained in August and charged with leading a bomb plot.
Politicians, including Mikati in his statement today, quickly sought to connect the two.
“I don’t want to prejudge the investigation, but in fact we cannot separate yesterday’s crime from the revelation of the explosions that could have happened,” he said.
Others have also blamed Hezbollah, including Nadim Koteich, a protester holding a sign that read “divorce until justice”.
|Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid reports from the city of Tripoli|
“It means divorce from Hezbollah and the regime of illegal weapons in Lebanon,” he said, referring to the group’s arsenal, which vastly overshadows that of the Lebanese army.
It was less clear, though, what Hezbollah would gain from a bombing that threatened to cause instability in the country and weaken March 8’s grip on power. [Hezbollah is a member of the alliance.]
The group condemned the bombing yesterday.
Demonstrators at Saturday’s rally acknowledged that, so far at least, Mikati’s coalition seems to be resisting the pressure.
Walid Jumblatt, a prominent Druze politician widely seen as the weathervane of Lebanese politics, refused to withdraw his ministers from the cabinet, suggesting that Mikati has time left to serve.
Mikati did say that he wanted to resign, and would once President Michel Sleiman finished negotiations over a new government, a gesture that would perhaps give his opponents a way to accept his continued time in office.
There is no alternate Lebanese government waiting in the wings, so Mikati’s resignation could plunge the country into a political vacuum, a prospect both sides seem keen to avoid.
“March 14 cannot make any quick moves,” said Charles Jabbour, the editor of Al-Joumhouria newspaper, who attended the rally.
“We are waiting to see what March 8 does.”
‘Trying to be optimistic’
The rally in Beirut was a peaceful counterpoint to violent clashes earlier in the day in Tripoli and Saida.
Five people were injured in Tripoli, residents of Jebel Mohsen, a neighbourhood considered a stronghold for Assad supporters. In Saida, supporters of a Sunni Muslim leader, Sheikh Ahmed Assir, burned tyres in protest over the bombing.
It was also a prelude to what will be a much larger event on Sunday: Hassan’s funeral.
He will be buried next to Saad’s father, Rafiq al-Hariri, who was killed in a 2005 bombing. Hassan worked on that investigation, too, which implicated Hezbollah.
The government declared Saturday a national day of mourning, which did not stop many Lebanese in the capital from venturing out; cafes and restaurants were busy, even around Sassine Square, the site of the bombing.
Still, the mood was tense, with a heavy army presence on the streets, and many could not resist wondering whether the bombing portends a return to the years-long civil war that paralysed Lebanon.
“I’m trying to be optimistic. I think we need to put a few people behind bars and then move on,” said Nabeel, who recently returned to Lebanon after six years of studying in France [and would not give his last name]. “I just came back. I have to be optimistic.”