On December 1, up to 2 million people attended a rally in Beirut called by Hezbollah and its allies to demand the resignation of US-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government.
Three days after the November 21 assassination of Pierre Gemayal, industry minister in Siniora's cabinet, Sunni Muslim and Christian business leaders had imposed a two-day lockout on bank and factory workers to pressure Hezbollah and its allies to "stop making threats of street protests".
A week earlier, acting interior minister Ahmad Fatfat had declared that any street demonstrations held without his permission would be considered "an uprising against the government".
The assassination of Gemayal, who was the representative of the Christian far-right Phalangist party in Siniora's cabinet, occurred in the midst of a deepening political crisis for Siniora's government. The government was elected 17 months ago in the wake of massive public protests organised by an alliance of Christian- and Sunni-based parties that forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April 2005.
Ironically, Syria had sent its troops into Lebanon in 1976, with Washington's approval, to stop the Christian Phalangist militia being defeated by its Lebanese Muslim and Palestinian opponents in a then one-year-old civil war.
The March 14, 2005, anti-Syria protest was sparked by the assassination the previous month of former PM Rafik Hariri, a leading Sunni politician who was campaigning for a Syrian troop withdrawal. Sunni and Christian political leaders accused Damascus of orchestrating Hariri's murder.
The current political crisis began when all five Shiite ministers — two from Hezbollah and three from its ally Amal — resigned over the November 10-11 weekend in protest against Siniora's refusal to increase the representation of Shiite-based parties in the 24-member cabinet or call new parliamentary elections. The Christian environment minister also resigned, in solidarity with the Shiite ministers.
Following the resignations, President Emile Lahoud, a Christian, declared that Siniora's government was "unconstitutional" without any Shiite representation.
Under Lebanon's electoral law, originally drawn up by its French colonial rulers in the 1940s, Christians are allocated 64 seats in the 128-member parliament, while Shiite Muslims are allocated only 27. While no official census has been taken since 1932, it is estimated that Shiites, the most impoverished section of the population, now constitute 40% of Lebanon's 4 million residents. Christians and Sunnis are estimated to each comprise about 30%.
In the wake of the July-August Israeli war against Lebanon — in which Israel bombed the country with impunity while Hezbollah-led resistance fighters fought the invading Israeli army to a standstill a few kilometres north of the Lebanon-Israel border — the popularity of Hezbollah and its allies soared. A November 13 survey by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information found that nearly 60% of Lebanese voters favoured the Hezbollah-led opposition bloc.
The Western corporate media has presented the resignation of the Shiite ministers as an attempt by Syria to block the Lebanese cabinet approving a UN-created international court to try suspects in Hariri's murder. Syria has denied any role in the slayings of Hariri, Gemayel or four other anti-Syrian politicians over the past two years.
The rival forces in the Lebanese political crisis are invariably described in the Western media as "anti-Syrian" (Siniora and his backers) or "pro-Syrian" (Hezbollah and its allies). However, a key component of the Hezbollah-led opposition bloc is the Christian-based, secular nationalist Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by former army chief Michel Aoun, an outspoken opponent of Syria's occupation of Lebanon.
In February, Aoun led the FPM into a political alliance with Hezbollah, based on the demands for Israel to end its 39-year occupation of the Shebaa Farms area in south Lebanon and the introduction of a fairer electoral law.
On November 24, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah and Amal leader Nabih Berri issued a media statement supporting the creation of the international tribunal. They accused their opponents of using the issue to divert attention away from the opposition's demands for one-third of the cabinet posts.
"We insist on our legitimate right to demand a real participation in the political decision-making", the two Shiite leaders said. They pledged to press their "demand by using all available democratic and legal means".
When Nasrallah first demanded more cabinet seats in early November, he said that Hezbollah would call peaceful street demonstrations to bring down the government if the opposition's demands were not met. But those protests were called off until after the official seven-day mourning period for Gemayel.
Associated Press reported that an "estimated 800,000 government supporters — a fifth of the population — turned out for Gemayel's funeral" on November 24, "turning it into a political rally against Syria" and the Hezbollah-led opposition.
"We will not accept that this government shall be changed for a government of murderers and criminals. They want a confrontation — so be it", Samir Geagea, head of the Christian-based far-right Lebanese Forces (LF) party/militia shouted out at the funeral. Geagea was convicted in 1988 for the murder a year earlier of PM Rashid Karami.
On November 23, US President George Bush condemned Syria and Iran, claiming they were "fomenting instability" in Lebanon. That day's Los Angeles Times reported that US officials "promised that the United States would do what it could to support its allies in the [Siniora] government ... But US officials acknowledged that they had limited influence to deal with the crisis ...
"Analysts see the Lebanon situation as another sign that American clout is shrinking in the Middle East ... David Schenker, a former top Pentagon advisor on the Middle East, said US influence in Lebanon was not boosted by the [July-August] war, in which Washington backed Israel during its bombardment. 'We're not really persona grata after the war', said Schenker, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy."
The Lebanese Naharnet website reported on November 28 that 1000 Lebanese troops and riot police "separated overnight about 2000 pro- and anti-government Christian supporters" who were "trading insults and throwing glass bottles at each other in Beirut's Ashrafieh neighborhood". The potentially violent clash followed attempts by LP supporters to stop FPM supporters putting up posters of Aoun.
The November 28 Beirut Daily Star reported that clashes between students had broken out the previous day at St. Joseph University after Gemayel supporters hung a pro-government banner from a classroom window. Supporters of FPM and Hezbollah, who recently won student council elections according to the paper, "demanded that the banner be removed".
FPM youth movement leader Marc Sassine said that government supporters had come onto the university "by force, militia style" attempting to initiate a clash with opposition supporters.
"We had no problem with the actual poster, and the student council was willing to hang it, but in the name of the council and all the students", he told the Daily Star. "But they rejected this and wanted to hang it only in their name, and when they do so in such an aggressive way, it will cause problems."