Hundreds of thousands answered the call of Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah today as they flooded the streets of Martyr's Square in Beirut and demanded that Western-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his government step down.
Nasrallah has threatened to make this protest a prolonged sit-in, intended to cripple the country's economy and force the government's resignation.
"If the protesters believe in democracy and the constitution, they should wait for another two years for the elections." Sami Haddad, the Lebanese minister of the economy told reporters.
However, Hezbollah and its supporters are acting now, exploiting its popularity after this summer's war with Israel. It is insisting on more power in government, specifically demanding veto power.
Lebanese Army On Alert
Nasrallah encouraged his followers to protest alongside the supporters of Gen. Michel Aoun, the most popular Christian political leader and head of the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as members of the Amal Movement, another Shiite group.
The Lebanese military has been put on alert. The offices of Prime Minister Saniora, situated just off Martyr's Square, have been circled with armored personal carriers, troops and barbed wire.
Saniora, speaking to a nationally televised audience last night, told his supporters "not to be scared and not to be desperate."
Anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jamblatt was more blunt with reporters saying, "We will remain strong and watch what will happen. I call this an attempted coup."
The Lebanese government has already been weakened by the recent assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the leading anti-Syrian Lebanese minister, and by the resignation of six ministers allied to Hezbollah. Still, Saniora refuses to bow to the pressure.
The two sides in this confrontation represent the larger conflict being played out in the Middle East, between supporters of the United States and those backing Iran and Syria. The Lebanese government accuses the demonstrators of being puppets of Syria and Iran in an attempt to offset American efforts to democratize the Middle East.
"I think it will be very, very wise for the prime minister or other ministers to resign, to save the country a lot of economic damage," says Hezbollah politician Mohammed Khalife. "Because the fact is this is very peaceful, and the majority of people want this government to step down."<:>
Even if the government does resign, the present Lebanese cabinet would still be in charge. That means Hezbollah would end up right where it started, in a position only to negotiate. Hezbollah's attempts to negotiate with the government failed earlier last month.
Hezbollah promises the protests will remain peaceful. They claim to have several thousand "well-disciplined marshals" to maintain calm.
Tents, food and medicine are being made available for demonstrators to stay until the present Lebanese government resigns.