Fears grow of Lebanon crisis spilling onto streets
BEIRUT Fears are mounting that Lebanons prolonged political crisis could spill out on to the streets after a spate of demonstrations over government paralysis and the escalating cost of living.
In recent weeks, protesters have blocked roads leading to the airport, setting fire to rubbish bins and tyres, while skirmishes have erupted between members of the Sunni and Shia communities.
And on Thursday, the country was braced for more violence, with the army deployed heavily in the capital and elsewhere amid a nationwide labour strike.
The head of the General Confederation of Workers of Lebanon, Ghassan Ghosn, said the strike was aimed at forcing the government to raise the minimum wage and address inflation.
He added that the union had called protesters to avoid violence and clashes.
The CGTL is calling for the minimum monthly wage to be tripled from 300,000 Lebanese pounds ($200) to 900,000 pounds.
Consumer prices rose 3.7 per cent in the 10 months to October, led by an eight per cent hike in food prices, according to the private Institute of Research and Consulting.
Although security forces have managed to contain the various recent protests, the simmering tension has prompted alarmist headlines and warnings of all out civil strife.
“The threat of an escalation becoming more real” said a headline in the LOrient Le-Jour daily this week.
As-Safir, which is close to the opposition, said on Thursday that the strikes were but a reflection of growing unease among the population.
Imad Salamey, a political science professor at Lebanese American University, said he believed the increasing protests were a ploy by the Hezbollah-led opposition to force the Western-backed government to buckle to its demands over the presidency.
“I think the tactic here is to build up a manageable escalation,” Salamey said. “And whenever it looks like its going to get out of hand, they will cool it down and wait for a new round of negotiations.” Karim Makdisi, a political science professor at American University of Beirut, said it was clear that Hezbollah and its allies were not keen on the situation escalating into violence, at least for now.
“They keep threatening that things will get out of hand but this is a bit like the story of the boy who cried wolf,” Makdisi said.
“I think the threat is there but the only thing that has kept us from descending into conflict is the fact that Hezbollah for now has not seen any interest in that and has restrained its followers.” But a spokesman for opposition leader and parliament speaker Nabih Berri rejected accusations that their camp was behind the growing unrest.
“The speaker worked hard into the night yesterday to make sure the labour strike does not end in violence and for it to be symbolic,” said the spokesman, who requested anonymity.
“The charges that we are behind the protests are baseless.” Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud stepped down when his term ended on Nov 23 with no elected successor because of the stalemate between the majority and the opposition backed by Syria and Iran.
Although all parties agree on the candidacy of army chief General Michel Sleiman to fill the post, they are at loggerheads over the make-up of the future government.
The ruling coalition is mainly backed by members of the Sunni and Druze communities, as well as some Christians, while the opposition is mainly backed by the Shias and by other Christians.
A senior security official warned that while police so far have managed to control the violence, which would not be the case if the situation escalated.
“Weve managed to prevent things from getting out of hand but if riots erupt all over the country and in the event of sectarian clashes, I am not sure our troops will be able to contain the situation,” he said.
The crisis in Lebanon is widely seen as an extension of the crisis pitting the United States and its allies against Syria and Iran. —AFP