Beirut Braces for Competing Protests

Supporters of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri take to the streets of Beirut on the anniversary of his 2005 assassination. They may encounter opponents who have paralyzed the center of the capital for weeks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Thousands are out on the streets of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, for a demonstration marking the second anniversary of the massive truck bombing that killed a former prime minister. Rafik Hariri died along with 22 other people. Since that assassination, Lebanon has seen a string of attacks, shootings, and bombings aimed at political figures. Yesterday two mini-buses taking people to their jobs were bombed. That was the first attack targeting civilians since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from downtown Beirut.

Hello.

PETER KENYON: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is the scene there today?

KENYON: Well it is a sunny day as opposed to the (unintelligible) day yesterday, and it is a very large turnout here. This very large downtown square, where Rafik Hariri is buried, by the way, is essentially divided. On the side I'm talking to you from here there's thousands of pro-government demonstrators, and then there's a wide separation corridor manned by heavy security presence, and on the other side are the tents housing a smaller number of opposition protestors who have been camped out here for months.

On this side of the square there is a definite feeling that they're trying to recapture the spirit of the original rally, which was actually March 14th three years ago. That's the one that galvanized Lebanon's Sunni, Christian and Druze communities into a coalition that formed a new majority in the legislature. The pro-Syrian president still remains, however. And since then, problems for this new coalition have only grown. The Christian community is split. Michel Aoun has taken his faction to join the opposition with Hezbollah, and the government is essentially paralyzed. So the question is whether these rallies can move things forward.

MONTAGNE: So again, the side you're standing on is largely pro-government. And with Lebanese politics being what they are - anti- or against Syria - which had had a lot of say in Lebanon for many years; what about the opposite side of the square there - the opposition protestors?

KENYON: They are not out in force today but they will be back. Everyone here is saying that; there is no question. They are still determined to topple this government, form a unity government which would essentially give Hezbollah and the opposition forces much more power. And given the size of today's rally we're likely to see an opposition rally sometime soon. The question is whether behind these relative shows of strength we can actually see some fruitful, behind-the-scenes negotiations going on. And that's what we thought we were seeing in recent days.

MONTAGNE: And yesterday, though, a couple of buses were bombed, you know, a sad and bad sign. Explosions being blamed on Syria, by some Lebanese lawmakers.

KENYON: Yes, it's a new wrinkle; as you mentioned earlier, the first attack against civilians since the civil war. The comment I heard most frequently yesterday up in the village of Ain Alaq is that this is too much like Iraq for my taste.

But it's also a reminder of Lebanon's own civil war, which began with an attack on a bus in 1975. Many here do believe that Syria is behind the bombing. Damascus has denied any role in any of the 15 or so attacks in the last two years, including that against Rafik Hariri.

MONTAGNE: It's a little hard to hear you there in Beirut, but let me just ask you a final question. Syria has also been implicated in Hariri's assassination, by those conducting an investigation. Where does that investigation stand at two years on?

KENYON: The United Nations has approved an international tribunal; so has Fouad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon. The legislature though, has not, and that's the sticking point. And so many people said that this bombing yesterday was tied to today's rally, but it also came one day after the speaker of the parliament announced progress on resolving that impasse over the tribunal, and some say that may be what alarmed Syria, if indeed they were behind this bombing. But the investigation is still a critical issue here that must be resolved.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon speaking to us from downtown Beirut. Thanks very much, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

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