Leading Lebanon from a gilded cage

Times Staff Writer

In the palace on the hill, the chants and curses from the street below are easy to hear.

The voices float up through the clear wintry air, wisps of tension rising from the roiling anti-government demonstrations. Weary ministers listen to the heart-pounding bass beat of Hezbollah fighters' anthems, the political speeches screamed into microphones, the roar of the crowd. After sunset, the glare of floodlights arches like a gigantic halo over the tent city that's cropped up in the upscale shopping districts of downtown.

Inside the Grand Serail, what remains of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government toils away, trying to ignore the thousands upon thousands of people massed at its gate. The people outside describe the government leaders as unwanted and illegitimate, pawns of U.S. interests.

"We hear their voices, but we feel no compassion for them," said Fouad Saad, a lawmaker and former Cabinet minister who, in his neat suit, lingered between meetings under the glittering chandeliers of a cavernous reception room. "These people have received orders from Syria and Iran.... They are trying to drag us backward many years."

This is the kernel of a dangerous political standoff. The government stays put, refusing to regard the raucous calls from the protesters for its officials' resignations. Instead, they say, foreign powers are scheming to take over the country.

The Grand Serail is a hulking sprawl of an Ottoman-style palace that was ravaged by civil war and reconstructed as a proud icon of a nation's rebirth. It now stands isolated behind snarls of razor wire and layers of soldiers and security forces.

In the shabby maze of tents below, the mood is stoical and confident. The demonstrators seem convinced that the government will, inevitably, collapse, that Siniora and his allies cannot stay in place with so many people on the streets.

"When this stuff happens in other countries, the government falls," said Sami Harb, a 21-year-old computer communications student.

Tough talk on both sides

On a cold night, Harb paced the pavement near the line where demonstrators' tents were pitched next to the tanks and soldiers that seal off the main road to the palace. He turned up the hill, and waved an arm in disgust.

"Here somebody died," he said, referring to a young Shiite Muslim man shot and killed in sectarian-tinged street fighting, "and Siniora is still sitting right up there."

Organizers insist that the demonstration will remain peaceful. Still, some protesters speak of overrunning the palace if the government doesn't leave.

But in a tough-talking interview last week at his heavily fortified home in Beirut, Saad Hariri said that his allies would never be driven from office by the Hezbollah-led demonstrations. Hariri, the head of the Sunni Muslim community and leader of the parliament's majority bloc, said that to give up would be akin to handing Lebanon over to Iran and Syria.

Even if fighting erupts, even if stability is shaken, the government will stay, Hariri said.

"You're not preserving stability, you're killing your democracy," he said of resignation. "It's about putting Lebanon in the hands of Syria and Iran."

Pro-government parties are planning counter-demonstrations in coming days, he said, adding that he was having a hard time keeping his supporters off the streets. In Sunni neighborhoods, men speak openly of their thirst for revenge.

"You have no clue how many people call us: 'We want weapons, we want this,' " Hariri said. "We have to be the Gandhis of Lebanon. We have to stand in their faces and say no."

In the meantime, the army has swarmed and cut off every road that leads to the Grand Serail. The surrounding neighborhood has been swallowed in an expanded security zone. Visitors have to pass through an army checkpoint, then walk along a once-bustling street now rendered ghostly, footsteps echoing off closed shops.

Soldiers sprawl on the steps of a church. Perhaps out of desperation or optimism, a lone merchant has kept his interior decorating shop open for customers who can't get there.

Inside the Grand Serail, many of the Cabinet ministers have been living, almost on top of one another, in the guest quarters. They have been there since one of their number, Pierre Gemayel, a Christian, was gunned down in November. They are afraid that if they leave, the same will happen to them.

A recent visit found Youth and Sports Minister Ahmed Fatfat drying his socks on a radiator and chatting with his visiting wife.

What the ministers know about events in the tent city below they mostly get from television.

The other night, the ministers huddled together before a television set to hear Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah insult them.

They heard Nasrallah, arguably the most popular political leader in Lebanon, refer to "what remains of this falling government in the Serail."

He called them a "government of one color and a despotism of one group," a "dead end," "the government of the American ambassador." They heard him say that he would keep his people at the gates until the government fell. And they heard the crowd scream with the throaty abandon of a rock concert, hoisting their toddlers on their shoulders, chanting, "God preserve Nasrallah!"

When the Hezbollah chief finished speaking, the sky thundered with fireworks and celebratory gunfire.

Support by the busload

The ministers woke up the next morning and pressed on with business. These days, "business" seems to involve accepting moral support and doing work that will be moot if the government falls.

Day after day, the buses rattle into town from the mountains in the north, the cities of the south, the Bekaa Valley. One day it's a delegation of Bedouin tribes, another day the Druze, or supporters from Sidon, the southern port that's home to the powerful Hariri family and Siniora.

A swarm of visitors from Sidon was ushered through the grand stone hallways and sleepy courtyards last week, and packed into a hall where they staged a tiny counter-demonstration. They stood on their chairs, waved pictures of Lebanon's Sunni leaders and sang the national anthem.

"Today it's the turn of the people of Sidon to come," said Omar Hariri, a 50-year-old engineer. "You have to chose a side, to be on one side or the other."

"What's happening outside is disgusting," added Maher Chamma, also 50.

When a pale, weary-looking Siniora swept to the front of the room, borne along on a swift current of bodyguards, the cheers rang off the high ceiling. "May God bless you," the people cried. "With our blood and our souls, we will redeem you, Siniora."

Siniora launched into a speech deriding Hezbollah. Then he told them, "Sitting with you gives me a lot of comfort."

But when it was over, the visitors were packed back into buses and driven off through the back entrance, out of sight of the demonstrators.

Passing through a courtyard where pigeons splashed lazily in a fountain, Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad said she had just finished writing a request for international money to help Lebanon rebuild from the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah.

"We are working much better and more efficiently than before," she said, her tone defiant. "You can concentrate here. You don't have the house, you don't have the children."

But moods shift fast. A moment later, Mouawad said she felt physically threatened. She fretted about rumors that demonstrators might try to take the palace by force.

Both sides insist they are open to negotiation. But at the same time, Nasrallah said his party would be wary of wasting time. And Hariri, too, seemed pessimistic.

"My only concern is, do they have the authority to negotiate?" Hariri said. "Because their authority comes from outside, from Iran and Syria.

"We did not create the problem," he added. "They created the problem."

megan.stack@latimes.com

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