Unrest in Lebanon / Red-hot Beirut

Two days after major demonstrations in downtown Beirut, the question arises whether the opposition has a plan of action beyond rallies to advance its aspiration to bring about the resignation of the Lebanese government. Both sides know that legally as long as the conditions set out in the Lebanese constitution do not exist for the dismissal of the prime minister by the president, and as long as Prime Minister Fouad Siniora does not resign of his own volition, there is no legal way out of the crisis. So Hezbollah and its allies have turned to the street with the goal of proving to the prime minister the public is not with him, thus exerting moral pressure on him to resign.

This move illustrates that Hezbollah is not an organization whose might is solely its military threat. By calling on the street, Nasrallah presents himself not only as politically powerful, but also as one working against an illegitimate regime. The rallies aim to prove to the government it had better not opt for elections, which is the less desirable choice for both sides.

However, this well-orchestrated action leaves the Hezbollah leadership and ally Michel Aoun on the horns of a dilemma. The longer the demonstrations and the closure of Beirut's business center persists, the greater the chance public opinion will turn against the opposition. But if the demonstrations and strike end before the goal is reached, they will be considered a failure and will make it difficult for the opposition to press its demands.

The dilemma for Siniora is that without political compromise, additional portions of the public might join the call for him to resign, and thus further erode the legitimacy of the government, which has had difficulty functioning since its appointment. And without a functioning government in Lebanon, the donor countries will not agree to hold the conference scheduled for January 25. Thus hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to rebuild the war-torn country will be withheld. This could score points for Hezbollah, which is at present the main body directly assisting war victims.

Meanwhile, the protagonists fear that uncontrollable violence will reignite for which either side could be blamed. That is the reason Siniora called again yesterday on the opposition to renew the political dialogue, and former prime minister Salim al-Hus, an opposition leader, sought to set a date for the end of the strike.