Amid Protests, Ex-Lebanon Leader Assails New Premier
By ANTHONY SHADID
BEIRUT — Saad Hariri, whose government was toppled after the Shiite movement Hezbollah and its allies withdrew this month, declared their appointment of a new prime minister a “coup d’état” on Tuesday, as angry protesters took to the streets, burning tires and attacking the office of one of Mr. Hariri’s foes.
The escalating demonstrations deepened one of the worst crises in years in Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country where confrontations often serve as an arena for regional and international disputes. It has pitted Hezbollah and its allies, backed by Iran and Syria, against Mr. Hariri and his supporters, backed by the United States and France.
After days of political wrangling, the candidate supported by Hezbollah and its allies, Najib Miqati, a billionaire and former prime minister, won 68 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament, enough to name the next government in a country as divided as it is diverse. His elevation was a clear victory for Hezbollah, which has ruled out Mr. Hariri’s return to power, and was the culmination of what was already accepted as a fact of life here: that Hezbollah is the country’s pre-eminent military and political force.
So far, the crisis has played out according to the rules of Lebanon’s parliamentary system, and both Mr. Miqati and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, went to great lengths to offer a conciliatory message and portray Mr. Miqati as a consensus choice.
“My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, to build, not to destroy, to talk, not to quarrel,” Mr. Miqati said Tuesday after President Michel Suleiman named him as the prime minister-designate. “Let’s learn from the lessons of the past.”
Mr. Nasrallah promised that the government “is not led by Hezbollah.”
As is so often the case here, though, that perception depended on where one stood on a confrontation that cuts across the country’s myriad fault lines of sect, ideology and class, where communal leaders have great sway on the sentiments of their communities. In an interview, Mr. Hariri declared the government had been dictated by Hezbollah.
“What has happened is virtually a coup d’état, a political coup d’état,” Mr. Hariri said at his house in downtown Beirut, near the seat of government that he and his team left only days before. “Me and my allies, we will represent the opposition.”
He blamed former allies and said he was filled with “lots of feelings of betrayal.”
The prospect of Mr. Hariri in the opposition could ensure prolonged instability in a country still haunted by the legacy of its 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Mr. Hariri represents Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community in a system that rigidly divides power among its sects. A government without his participation would assuredly be viewed as a Shiite-dominated government, beholden to Hezbollah, and that very prospect unleashed the protests Tuesday in Beirut, Tripoli and other predominantly Sunni towns.
“It is a day of anger against the interference of Iran and Syria,” Mohammed Kabbar, a lawmaker from Tripoli, told protesters. “This is the angry Lebanon. Don’t test our anger.”
The protesters went on to burn a van belonging to Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite channel they perceive as sympathetic to Hezbollah, and attacked an office belonging to Mohammed Safadi, a Sunni lawmaker and minister from Tripoli who voted for Mr. Miqati.
In Beirut, scores of youths burned tires, overturned trash bins and built barricades across a main road to the downtown. They sought to stop traffic, throwing rocks at passing cars, though the army eventually reopened the road.
“Sunni blood is boiling, boiling!” some of the youth shouted.
Others yelled insults at the country’s Shiites, who were celebrating one of the more revered days in the religious calendar. Taken together, the tension was a dangerous — though neither uncommon nor unpredictable — renewal of sectarian tension in a county where identity still powerfully revolves around religious affiliation.
Neither side is innocent of mobilizing their respective street-level supporters in the crisis, but Sunni sentiments seem to be especially provoked. Nevertheless, in the interview, Mr. Hariri said that “we need to calm this down,” and minutes before he spoke, he delivered an address on television, urging his followers to refrain from violence or vandalism.
He thanked supporters, but said, “anger cannot be expressed by cutting off roads, burning tires or infringing on the freedom of others, regardless of the motives.”
The crisis has revolved around a United Nations-backed tribunal that is investigating the assassination in February 2005 of Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, himself a billionaire and former prime minister. By the group’s own admission, members of Hezbollah are expected to be named in indictments that were delivered to a pretrial judge last week, though still kept secret. Hezbollah has denied any role, calling the tribunal a tool of the United States and Israel to put pressure on it, and insisted that Lebanon end cooperation with the body, which began its work in 2007.
For months, the two sides negotiated an agreement that would do just that, but in the end, talks broke down, with each side accusing the other of bad faith.
In the interview, Mr. Hariri said: “I tried my best. I truly and honestly think I did. I really was willing to go very far for the benefit of Lebanon.”
His opponents accuse him of lying to them, but he said he believed he was put in a no-win situation, in which a deal was impossible in the end. “Whoever killed Rafik Hariri in 2005 doesn’t want Saad Hariri to be in power,” he said. “Take it from there.”
Hezbollah has seemed to view the tribunal as an almost existential threat, and in his speech Tuesday, Mr. Nasrallah suggested that the issue had forced its hand.
He assured the country that his movement did “not seek authority nor seek to govern.” But in words that occasionally turned angry, he declared that plotting by Hezbollah’s foes here, including an outreach to the United States after Mr. Hariri’s assassination in 2005 and tacit support for Israel’s destructive war against Hezbollah in 2006, had forced him to act.
“Leave us alone, don’t kill us, don’t stab us in the back, don’t conspire against us,” he said. “We are people who are going to die and who want to die. Let us get killed by bullets fired in our chest and not in our backs.”