JERUSALEM – The giant Hezbollah rally that drew nearly half a million purported supporters of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon included non-Lebanese citizens, Syrian workers, students and municipal employees coerced into joining the protest, former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun told WorldNetDaily in an exclusive interview this morning.
Hezbollah-led rally in Beirut yesterday (Photo: Al-Jazeerah)
“Yesterday’s huge protest calling for Syria to stay made it look to the world like a large segment of the Lebanese population actually wants to live under Syrian occupation,” said Aoun, speaking to WND from Paris. “But the protest wasn’t what it appeared to be. It was an elaborately staged affair.”
Hundreds of thousands packed into a central Beirut meeting square yesterday, chanting support for Syrian troops to maintain positions in Lebanon and denouncing America in what has been called a massive show of strength by Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Protesters held signs, in English, reading “Thank you Syria” and “No to foreign interference,” a reference to American intervention. The crowd sang the national anthem and many waved red-and-white Lebanese flags, some holding posters with pictures of pro-Damascus Lebanese and Syrian presidents.
Attendance at the rally greatly outnumbered recent demonstrations led by opposition figures against Syria’s presence in Lebanon and was billed by Hezbollah speakers as a sign Syria enjoys popular support among the people of Lebanon and should therefore keep their nearly 20,000 troops inside the country. Damascus has been under daily fire from the U.S., Europe and many Arab countries demanding an end to its occupation of Lebanon.
But Aoun told WND Hezbollah and Syrian officials used deceptive and coercive techniques to orchestrate the protest.
“This was not a Lebanese showing, and many of those who actually were Lebanese were not there because they support Syria. We know that at least three Palestinian camps were present. And there are 700,000 Syrian workers inside Lebanon, many of whom are not even supposed to be there. They were urged by Syria to attend so it looks like many Lebanese are protesting. Plus Syria bused in their own citizens from Syria through the border into Lebanon to join the rally.”
The former prime minister also accused Hezbollah and pro-Syrian Lebanese intelligence forces of coercing students and municipal workers to attend.
“They shut down the schools and all the government and public buildings and pressured students and workers to get to the rally,” he said.
Similar charges were made to WND this morning by a spokesperson for Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party.
Aoun said Hezbollah was able to legitimately bring some of its own followers. The Lebanese militant group maintains a sizable constituency of the Shia population, to which it provides social welfare services ranging from education to medical care. In the outlying heavily Shiite regions of the Bekaa Valley and the south, Aoun says, Hezbollah “drove through the streets with loudspeakers urging followers to get to Beirut for the protest.”
“In all, it was a real multinational rally,” joked Aoun. “Even watching protesters being interviewed, you hear they had Palestinian and Syrian accents. This was not the Lebanese people expressing their will.”
Aoun compared yesterday’s rally to the opposition events held almost daily.
“Yesterday was not a spontaneous outpouring; it was planned and orchestrated,” he said. “You see in the opposition rallies that they happen every day. People are going because they want to, and they are going regularly.”
Officials have been debating the past few weeks how Hezbollah will react to the growing international pressure on Damascus to immediately withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and to what degree the group enjoys support from the Lebanese people.
Hezbollah’s weak response to former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, for which Syria has been blamed, and its refusal to join the opposition’s push to get Damascus out of Lebanon has brought many Lebanese to question Hezbollah’s ultimate allegiances, analysts say.
Some experts contend a growing number of Lebanese believe Hezbollah’s armed wing has not been needed since Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, and many see the group’s resistance as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, a pariah.
But Hezbollah boasts the largest Shia party in Lebanon, supported by a third of the Shiite Muslim population. With parliament almost evenly split between pro-Syrian loyalists and the opposition, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, with 12 seats, may hold the deciding votes.
In recent remarks, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a major force of the anti-Syrian opposition, has gone out of his way to praise Hezbollah’s head, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, as a “great leader,” and repeatedly has called on him to join the opposition.
But yesterday’s rally served to solidify Hezbollah’s union with Syria, explained Aoun.
Aoun also said recent information has shown Syrian and Lebanese forces have been trying to stir up violence with the opposition in hopes of precipitating a confrontation that may delay Syria’s announced withdrawal of troops.
“There have been shootings in residential areas yesterday and the day before by Syrian backed forces to try to provoke violence with the opposition,” said Aoun.
Syrian officials announced last week troops would withdraw from mountain and coastal areas in Lebanon in line with a 1989 agreement signed while Aoun was in office, but there has been no sign of such a redeployment.
U.S. President George W. Bush said the time for delaying tactics by Damasacus has passed and set a May deadline for Syria’s full withdrawal from Lebanon.
“We are not expecting much from Syria,” said Aoun. “They are considering the American pressure very seriously, but we haven’t seen clear signs Syria will withdraw now.”
Aoun is no stranger to revolt against Syria. While prime minister in 1989, he launched a “war of liberation” against Syrian military forces which earlier had invaded Lebanon. The war was highly popular with Lebanese citizens but failed to garner the international opposition needed to successfully oust Syrian troops. It ended in a cease-fire and the signing of the American and Saudi backed Ta’if accord, which required Syria to redeploy its troops to the Bekaa valley and confer with Lebanon on further redeployments.
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the American government garnered Syria’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition against Baghdad, and critics charge in return the previous Bush administration gave Damascus a green light to complete its conquest of Lebanon, allowing it to launch an invasion of East Beirut and the surrounding areas controlled by Aoun’s government, forcing Aoun into exile in France.
Despite his exile, Auon has remained a highly popular leader in Lebanon, considered by many to be the country’s most prominent opposition figure. There have been calls throughout the decade, both from the Christian community and from a significant portion of the Lebanese Muslim population, for his return to power.