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In Lebanon, Protesters Decry Rise Of Hezbollah

Protesters in Tripoli burn a vehicle belonging to the satellite TV station Al-Jazeera during a rally in support of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hundreds of people converged on the city Tuesday to take part in a "day of rage" over the appointment of Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati.
Joseph Eid
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AFP/Getty Images
Protesters in Tripoli burn a vehicle belonging to the satellite TV station Al-Jazeera during a rally in support of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hundreds of people converged on the city Tuesday to take part in a "day of rage" over the appointment of Hezbollah-backed Najib Mikati.

Lebanon's outgoing prime minister appealed for calm Tuesday after sporadic violence greeted the selection of a new premier backed by Iranian-allied Hezbollah who will form the country's next government.

"I understand your emotions ... but this rage should not lead us to what is against our morals, faith and beliefs," said Saad Hariri, whose Future bloc declared a day of peaceful protests Tuesday — but called it a "day of rage."

My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, in order to build and not to destroy.
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Sunnis gathered in cities across Lebanon to protest the rising power of the Shiite militant group, burning tires and torching a van belonging to Al-Jazeera. The port city of Tripoli saw the largest demonstrations after billionaire businessman and former premier Najib Mikati was elected prime minister-designate. Although Mikati is a Sunni Muslim, most Lebanese support his predecessor, U.S.-backed Hariri.

After he was chosen, Mikati called on all Lebanese factions to join in ending the country's divisions and form another unity government.

"My hand is extended to all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, in order to build and not to destroy," Mikati said.

Hariri's party said it wanted no part of a government in which the Shiite Hezbollah movement would have great influence, though it is not yet clear what role Hezbollah will play in the new government.

Hezbollah and its allies brought down Hariri's government two weeks ago after he refused to denounce an international tribunal investigating the assassination of his father in 2005. Draft indictments possibly implicating Hezbollah members in the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri are being studied by a pretrial judge in The Hague.

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The vote caps Hezbollah's steady rise over the past few decades from a resistance group fighting Israel to Lebanon's most powerful military and political force. The shift in the balance of power drew warnings from the U.S. that its support for Lebanon could be in jeopardy, demonstrating the risks of international isolation if Hezbollah pushes too far.

The United States, which has poured in $720 million in military aid since 2006, has tried to move Lebanon firmly into a Western sphere and end the influence of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley warned Monday that continuing U.S. support for Lebanon would be "problematic" if Hezbollah takes a dominant role in the government.

Many experts fear Lebanon's political crisis could reignite sectarian fighting similar to Shiite-Sunni street clashes that killed 81 people in Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah's rise also looked likely to raise tensions with Israel, which borders Lebanon to the south. Hezbollah and Israel fought a short but devastating war in 2006.

Despite opposition from the Hariri camp, Mikati is seen as a relatively neutral choice who enjoys good relations with both Syrian President Bashar Assad and with Hariri. That puts Hariri in the awkward position of rejecting a candidate who has been an ally in the past.

According to Lebanon's power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni, the Parliament speaker a Shiite and the president a Christian Maronite. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon's population of 4 million.

Because Mikati is a Sunni, protesters accused him of being a traitor to his sect and betraying Hariri, who has stayed on as caretaker prime minister.

Sunnis demonstrated for a second day across the country, in Beirut and along the main highway linking the capital with the southern port city of Sidon.

A senior military official said several armed men fired in the air in west Beirut, but the army intervened and dispersed them. Soldiers also clashed with demonstrators in the town of Naameh, south of Beirut, and two civilians were wounded, security officials said. But besides the large protest in Tripoli, the gatherings were mostly localized and not hugely disruptive.

Hezbollah can now either form its own government, leaving Hariri and his allies to become the opposition, or it can try to persuade Hariri to join a national unity government. In a speech Sunday night, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said he favored a unity government.

NPR's Peter Kenyon contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press

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