Both sides appear cornered in Beirut

Times Staff Writer

When hundreds of thousands of demonstrators choked downtown Beirut on Sunday to demand the ouster of the U.S.-backed government, their crushing show of political strength came carefully packaged with a harsh threat: Time for a political compromise is running out.

At the podium, a menacing tone laced the speeches of party officials from Hezbollah and its allies. On the jammed streets, a fraying, frustrated tinge crept into the cries of demonstrators who washed over downtown in waves. The massive sit-in has moved into its second week without tangible results, and within the opposition, calls are mounting for an escalation in civil disobedience.

Gen. Michel Aoun, a powerful Maronite Christian leader and political ally of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, closed the demonstration with a threat. Cheers rose among the crowds as a fiery Aoun declared the people that "this stage has come close to its end."

"In the few coming days, we expect to change the status quo we're in. This must be the last big rally we'll call for, because in the next one there will be no room for all the protesters," he said. "And the barbed wire will no longer protect the [government offices] because people will move there naturally and without any instigation."

Aoun pledged to remain peaceful but, in the next breath, said that "other means" were also legitimate. He spoke admiringly of the seizure of government buildings in Serbia and Ukraine, and argued that extreme actions were legitimate when used to oust corrupt rulers.

From Arab diplomats to Christian clerics, negotiators are still struggling to broker a power-sharing compromise to bring Lebanon back from the brink of collapse.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa was expected to return to Lebanon this week to continue searching for a deal. Late Sunday, reports emerged that Hezbollah might be willing to accept the Arab League proposal. But the details weren't clear -- and other flashes of optimism have repeatedly been squelched in weeks of contentious negotiations.

Dismissing the street protests as an attempted coup d'etat engineered by Hezbollah's main foreign backers, Syria and Iran, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Cabinet ministers have clung resolutely to power.

But the rain of insults and criticism unleashed in recent days on Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, has stirred fury among the government's supporters and raised the ire of Sunnis.

Meanwhile, through its media, Hezbollah and its allies have stepped up warnings of impending eruptions of civil disobedience: a large-scale labor strike, the closure of roads and the airport, the storming of the government offices to oust Siniora. Such escalation would run the risk of sparking serious clashes by provoking the government and its supporters and, potentially, the army and security forces.

Largely because of the sectarian overtones of the crisis, both the government and its critics have found themselves in a delicate position, analysts say.

Despite a nuanced set of allegiances among religious sects on both sides of the divide, the demonstration is fundamentally viewed by Lebanese as a standoff between a Sunni-dominated government and Shiite-led street protesters.

The government can't give up too much power without raising questions of weakness among the Sunnis. Nor can Hezbollah go home, or accept too little, without accepting defeat on behalf of Shiites.

"You can't back off in Lebanon," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "If you do, it means an entire sect has been defeated."

And in a country where losing face is akin to ceding power, Hezbollah and its allies have staked their credibility on the pledge to oust the government.

"Everybody is in a corner now," Ibrahim Moussawi, editor of Hezbollah's newspaper and a de facto spokesman for the party, said Sunday. "If the government continues to be stubborn and not listen to the people, then there will be some kind of escalation, although not necessarily violent. This will come in the next few days, not more than that."

From the beginning, the protesters confidently predicted that the Siniora government would crumple in the face of their massive demonstrations.

But that hasn't happened.

Despite curses and cries from the streets outside, despite the crippling of downtown Beirut, a relatively unflappable government has continued to plug away at its business in a heavily fortified compound. International delegations come and go. Siniora appears on television every day, weary-looking but composed and nattily dressed. Police guard the streets; trash gets picked up.

Meanwhile, the nights are getting colder and longer and an eagerness to shatter the status quo is mounting on the streets. Among Hezbollah and its allies in the opposition, there is a growing fear that the first flush of revolutionary enthusiasm will soon sink into stagnation -- or, worse, that their demonstration and, by extension, their political movements, will begin to appear irrelevant.

"We are not tired," Ali Hassan Khalil, a lawmaker for the Shiite Amal party, told the crowd Sunday. "They push us to adopt other options.... Let the whole world know, we do have other options."

Demonstrators poured into Beirut from around the country, many of them bused into the capital from predominantly Shiite hinterlands. They milled around the packed streets in a daze, shoving impatiently through the bodies, giddily chanting "Down with Siniora!" and buying gritty street food from vendors.

As young boys formed human pyramids and banged on drums, the mood was at times festive, but just below the surface, frustration was building up.

"It seems they don't want to step down so easily," said Mohammed Azwar, a 22-year-old protester who had been bused to the capital from the Bekaa Valley. "We did not expect this. But it's just because of all the support they're getting from abroad."

Azwar carried a cardboard poster bearing a picture of U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman meeting with Lebanese officials. It read, "We don't want Feltman's government."

Lebanon's Shiites are well acquainted with the experience of being brushed aside by those in power. Still, there was a sense of dawning surprise at the government's tenacity, and the bruised mood of being ignored in a mass endeavor that was specifically designed to blast through any attempts to overlook the people's demands.

"Hasn't he seen all these people? Hasn't he looked out the window of his castle?" an announcer said, his voice blaring from massive speakers. "What does he want, blood? Let this government fall! We want this government to leave us!"

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