As a whirlwind week of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Beirut comes to an end, with reports that Syria’s occupation of Lebanon is on weak footing, two major opposition figures who have been rallying the masses since the assassination last month of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri talked to WorldNetDaily about recent events and the future of their country.
Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt
“There have been major developments for the future freedom of Lebanon,” Druze opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, who commands a large following and has been organizing many of the anti-Syrian protests, told WorldNetDaily. “Still there is a lot of work to do.”
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun
Also reflecting on the past week, former Lebanese prime Minister Michel Aoun, who is largely considered a major contender in the May elections, told WorldNetDaily, “Things are looking up in many ways. Our country will continue to move toward independence.”
WorldNetDaily reported Monday an estimated 800,000 rallied in central Beirut in the largest anti-Syrian protest in Lebanon since the opposition called for a “general uprising” 32 days ago, and one of the largest protests in recent Middle East history. Some put the numbers as high as 1.3 million.
Crowds from across Lebanon gathered in Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut to demand the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops, the firing of Syrian-backed intelligence forces, and an international inquiry into Hariri’s killing.
Mocking a Hezbollah mass rally that many say consisted of foreign elements, protesters held signs that read “This Crowd is 100% Lebanese” and “No Syrians Here.”
Later Hezbollah brought 1,000 followers outside the U.S. Embassy north of Beirut chanting “Death to America” and burning American and Israeli flags while denouncing what they said was U.S. interference in Lebanon.
The Lebanese militia group last week led a rally with about half a million supporters calling for Damascus to keep its nearly 20,000 troops inside the country. Critics contend the rally included Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese municipal workers coerced into attending.
And reports yesterday say Syria’s army and intelligence agents completed the first phase of an announced pullback to Lebanon’s eastern border, with about 4,000 troops crossing into Syria and the rest repositioning themselves along the Bekaa Valley. Washington wants all Syrian troops and intelligence agents out of Lebanon to allow for free elections in May. Damascus claims it will comply.
But Jumblatt says Damascus withdrawing its troops is just the beginning.
“Even if Syria gets out, our country is a mess politically,” he said.
He blasted the recent reinstatement of ousted Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami who agreed to head a new government in a move denounced by the opposition as a “second murdering of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.” Karimi was appointed by parliamentary loyalists to pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, and has been calling on Jumblatt to enter talks to join a coalition.
“In France a minister once resigned because of a feud over the rent of his apartment. Here our former prime minister was killed, and we are supposed to join a coalition and cover them? This will not happen,” said Jumblatt.
Aoun agreed there should be no unity coalition.
“The idea is absurd. The Lebanese people have made it clear they don’t want any more Syrian interference in their lives. This means a government that represents the people, not the interests of another country. We need a change in the atmosphere.”
The opposition worries about the current political dynamics in Lebanon. The parliament is almost evenly split between the pro-Syrian camp and the opposition, with Syria backed Hezbollah holding the deciding votes.
Jumblatt and Aoun boast large Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim followers. But Shiites have been the one segment missing from anti-Syrian rallies, and this, analysts explain, is the difference between the current general uprising and Lebanon’s first Independence day in 1943.
Hezbollah commands most of the Shiits street, to which it provides social services including schools and medical care.
“Hezbollah is an issue,” said Aoun. “After Syria gets out, we don’t need anymore resistance. It won’t be necessary. Syria will withdraw. Israel is not in Lebanon anymore. The country just wants to live is freedom and peace.”
Sources have said that as Syria plans an exit next month, Iran is taking action on the ground to use Hezbollah to fill the resulting void. Iranian Revolutionary Guard units have been fortifying key early warning stations and Hezbollah bases that Syria has pledged to vacate, sources said. They report Iran has made preparations to supply Hezbollah bases with tanks, rockets and missiles, and is conducting high-level talks about using Hezbollah to create a larger pro-Iranian Shiite force in Lebanon.
Iran has also reportedly stepped up its financial assistance to Hezbollah, to which it currently pays over $40 million a year.
“Historically speaking, Iran has always had influence in Lebanon and controlling Lebanon through third parties and funding,” said Jumblatt.
He doesn’t view Iran or Syria as problematic states.
“We want good relationships with both. They are important to our country. We don’t have a problem with either. But we just don’t want anymore occupation.”
He also says Hezbollah forces “are Lebanese. We have to negotiate with them. Frankly they are not a terrorist group. They do very good work in Lebanon, and bravely got out the Israelis.”
Aoun said in spite of problems with Hezbollah and Iran, he takes some comfort in the ways things seem to be heading for Lebanon.
“This week’s rally showed the people are not afraid,” he said. “So many came in from Bekaa [Valley] and areas in the northern part of the country, where Syria is a major force. So they are expressing themselves and their will has to be heard.”
Syria’s President Bashar Assad has committed to continue pulling out troops and intelligence agents by April 1, but he will not give a final timetable for a complete withdrawal until a meeting between Syrian and Lebanese security officials scheduled for April 7.
“We don’t believe Syrian declarations,” said Aoun. “How many times have we heard before that Syria will withdraw? The international community needs to keep the pressure and make sure it happens.”
What will next week bring for people of Lebanon?
Monday’s rally may have been a grand finale to a series of opposition protests. Political sources told reporters Lebanese authorities were pondering a ban on future demonstrations to be enforced by the country’s army.
Lahoud has called for an end to the street protests and is urging the opposition to engage in talks with his government, although he has refused to debate the investigation of Hariri’s assassination as a pre-condition for the opposition’s joining.
Aoun says he is returning to Lebanon to deal with the situation: “My return, and those of many other former ministers have been called for unanimously by all sides.”
He wouldn’t comment on his specific plans, saying only “We need a government that truly represents the entire Lebanese people. I hope we can create this government.”
Jumblatt concurred with those sentiments: “We need a whole new government. The best way to get out of this mess is to tell Lahoud to resign. We will elect a new president whereby we’ll open a new phase of history.”