Saturday, December 02, 2006

Huge protest brings Beirut to a standstill

· Muslims and Christians demand new government
· Corruption and lack of inclusion prompt rally

Clancey Chassay in Beirut
Saturday December 2, 2006

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Christians waving Lebanese flags poured into central Beirut yesterday as opposition leaders gave impassioned speeches calling for the resignation of the cabinet and the formation of a new, more inclusive government.
A tent city was set up for the thousands who vowed to stay outside the government offices where the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and most of his ministers were holed up behind barbed wire and barriers until the cabinet stepped down.

"I call on the prime minister and his ministers to quit," said opposition leader Michel Aoun, to roars of applause. Mr Aoun, who fought a 15-year campaign to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence and commands the largest Christian following, led the opposition speeches. The Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, seen by many as a driving force of the opposition, did not make an appearance.

"Our government are in their offices hiding from us - the Lebanese people. We will stay on the streets until they leave," said 22-year-old Ali.

Since the early morning demonstrators had been streaming into the city centre, where organisers were handing out water and refreshments. Amid the carnival atmosphere, many expressed frustration at their lack of representation. "We are not asking only for a government of the opposition, but we want to be part of the decision-making process. We will not accept anything less than partnership," said 37-year-old architect Rana.

Saha Samat, 30, whose family had come from the north of Lebanon, said she was fed up with the exclusion of much of the country's Christian community. "We want a government that represents all Lebanese. I'm not with any political party; we have come as Lebanese. It's not just the economic situation; we want a unified government. It's not fair that all these people are not represented," she said, pointing at tens of thousands of Lebanese flags fluttering in the sun.

People lined the bridges and walkways entering the city as those arriving from the south reported a traffic jam running all the way back to the southern town of Tyre.

Many protesters believe the government is corrupt and has failed to address the country's nearly £20bn debt.

"These are the same people that ruled under the Syrians - the same crooks. We want a new government that is responsible and actually works for the good of the country," said 36-year-old electrical engineer Raymond Khouri.

"This government had a year and a half and they didn't do anything for Lebanon. There is no work, there is no security, and there is no honesty from the Siniora governmenta" said Hussein Fawaz, a 40-year-old stonemason from the south.

The government also came under fire over its relationship with Washington and its conduct during the summer's 34-day-war between Israel and Hizbullah.

"Our people were being killed everyday by Israel and they [the government] were taking orders from its ally, America. No one from this government has even visited the south yet," says Khaled Khadash, a 47-year-old marketing manager.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006