Riots in Lebanon as Hezbollah secures leadership

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Street protests, some of which turned violent, erupted across Lebanon Tuesday as a majority of lawmakers voted to nominate Najib Mikati, the Hezbollah-backed candidate for prime minister, to lead the country’s new government.

The success of the Hezbollah candidate is the culmination of decades of political maneuvering by the Shiite Muslim movement, which has now become the country’s most-powerful political organization, in control of the country’s largest army.

“All the people in Tripoli are angry,” said Mai Ali Osmen, a protester standing nearby a burning office building. “We hate Hezbollah.”

Hours later, after gunshots were fired, more soldiers were deployed to try to quell the ongoing demonstration, according to a local news source.

The widespread protests came after leaders called Monday for “a day of rage” in response to the expected nomination. Thousands appeared to answer that call, gathering in Tripoli and other cities Tuesday morning for a protest that began with music, dancing and passionate speeches, but ended in violence.

Riots broke out around noon, when protesters attempted to storm the office of a political party affiliated with Hezbollah and then attacked a news truck. Rioters also threw rocks at posters of Hezbollah politicians and burned a picture of Mikati.

The news truck was torched, sending a massive black cloud over the crowd. At least four men broke in and set fire to the office of Mohammad Safadi, a long-time lawmaker that typically supported March 14, the party of the now former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. This time, however, the legislator sided with Hezbollah.

In the capital Beirut, there were reports of tires burning on the roads, demonstrations and at least several injuries.

The riots are the latest drama in a protracted political crisis that could have far-reaching implications for the region. Hariri was ousted in mid-January when 11 ministers aligned with Hezbollah abruptly resigned in protest of the government’s support for the U.N.-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad’s father.

The tribunal was expected to find members of Hezbollah guilty of the assassination.

Hezbollah leaders, however, have called the tribunal a U.S. and Israeli plot designed to discredit the Shiite organization, which is backed by Iran and Syria. The new government is expected to seize funding for, and stop cooperating with, the tribunal, and remove its Lebanese judges from The Hague.

Hezbollah said the manner in which the government of Lebanon collapsed and the manner it has been remade is, while unprecedented, legal and democratic. Before his nomination, Mikati said he would seek to include all parties in a new coalition government.

“I will stretch out my hand to everyone if I was named prime minister," said Mikati, according to Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s official TV station.

In Tripoli, posters of Hariri, the ousted prime minister, loomed above the crowd.

Hariri, who has been acting as the country’s “caretaker” prime minister since the government’s collapse earlier this month, said previously that he would not work with any leader hand-picked by Hezbollah. After his loss was official, the former leader addressed his supporters and urged calm on the streets of Lebanon.

“You are responsible for Lebanon’s safety despite your anger,” he said. “I understand your feelings and cries of anger. But we resort to democracy in expressing our political opinion.”

Tony Najm, a political science student, watched as rioters tossed furniture out of office windows. He said that while he didn’t support the violence, he understood that the people were angry.

“I don’t know how much this government can rule without Saad Hariri,” he said.

Then, suddenly, multiple shots were fired as rioters attacked a building associated with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, another Hezbollah ally. But the arrival of Lebanese army tanks prevented any more attacks.

Some protesters blamed the United States and the international community for not stepping in to stop Hezbollah ascention.

“The international community and the West has let us down,” said Omar Tohme, a Lebanese bar owner, at a protest in Beirut Monday. “They did not come. They didn’t help us out. They didn’t have our back.”

The United States has indicated it might withdraw financial aid to any government led by Hezbollah, which it considers a terrorist organization.

"The larger the role played by Hezbollah in this government, the more problematic our relationship will be," said Philip Crowley, a State Department spokesman, according to Agence France Presse.

Changes in Lebanon’s government have also sparked concerns in Israel. Last fall, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew tens of thousands of supporters to Hezbollah rallies in southern Lebanon, near the border with Israel. In one speech, Ahmadinjad said Israel would one day “disappear.”

Analysts said Israel takes the Iranian threat seriously, and that Hezbollah leadership could further destabilize the region.

“On one level, a rising Hezbollah role could translate into a greater Israeli willingness to challenge Lebanon,” said Jeremy Pressman, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, in an email. “At the same time, has Israel been shy about using force against Lebanon over the last 35 years across different Lebanese governments?”