Robert Fisk: Revolution in the air as Lebanon's rift widens

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The Independent Online

With Fouad Siniora's cabinet hiding in the Grand Serail behind acres of razor wire and thousands of troops - a veritable "green zone" in the heart of Beirut - the largely Shia Muslim opposition, assisted by their Christian allies, brought up to two million supporters into the centre of the city yesterday to declare the forthcoming creation of a second Lebanese administration. A "transitional" government is what ex-general Michel Aoun called it, while Naeem Qassem, Hizbollah's deputy chairman, spoke ominously of the mass demonstrations as "the separatist day".

So, is the Hizbollah militia, which withstood Israel's disastrous bombardment of Lebanon last summer, really planning a coup on behalf of its Iranian and Syrian backers, as Mr Siniora suspects? Or are Mr Siniora and his cabinet colleagues - Sunni Muslim, Christian and Druze - working on behalf of the Americans and Israelis, as Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, proclaims?

Already, Mr Siniora's administration is being referred to in the American press as Lebanon's "US-backed government", the virtual kiss of death for any Arab leader these days, while Mr Aoun's split with his fellow Christians could prove fatal to him. Only because of his weird alliance with the Hizbollah can the latter claim that their opposition represents Christians as well as Muslims. True to the ironies of Lebanese politics, it was the same former general Aoun who fought a "war of independence" with Hizbollah's Syrian friends in 1990, a conflict which he lost at the cost of 1,000 lives.

But even supporters of Mr Siniora's administration were taken aback by the vast numbers of Lebanese that Hizbollah could mobilise yesterday, men and women who in many cases came from the villages and urban slums which suffered near-total destruction in this summer's war.

Their speakers played the role of representatives of the poor - "the people of the street" is how one foolish Sunni prelate called them on Friday - who had no time for the privileged classes or feudal pretentions of the government's supporters: Amin Gemayel, father of the murdered industry minister, Nayla Moawad, widow of a murdered Lebanese president, Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, and Walid Jumblatt, son of the murdered Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt.

If Lebanon's politics and history were not so tragic, there would be an element of Gilbert and Sullivan about all this. Mr Siniora, now regularly visited by America's busy little ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, was told by one of Mr Feltman's predecessors only a few years ago that his multiple re-entry visa to the United States was invalid because he, Mr Siniora, was believed to have donated money to a charity associated with - yes - the Hizbollah. And there was more than a hint of sarcasm yesterday when Mr Qassem announced that Mr Siniora worked for the Americans and the Israelis.

"Death to America - Death to Israel," he roared and, of course, the mass of demonstrators repeated this tired rhetoric. To the Arab nations which supported Mr Siniora's government, Mr Qassem had a simple message: "We are in the hearts of the Sunnis of the Arab world - not you!"

And the danger for Mr Siniora is that Mr Qassem's conviction is probably correct. Indeed, there was a hint of revolution in the air yesterday as the poor and the village youths and the people of the Beirut slums converged on Martyrs' Square where Hariri's tomb was cordoned off. Leila Tueni, the daughter of another of Lebanon's murdered political leaders, the journalist Jibran Tueni (like all the victims, anti-Syrian), stated in a hall only a few hundred yards from the protests that the real reason why Mr Nasrallah wanted to overthrow Mr Siniora's government, from which all Shia ministers have resigned, was to prevent it giving its approval to the UN tribunal intended to try Hariri's killers, whom Ms Tueni and the rest of Mr Siniora's supporters believe to include some of Syria's senior intelligence apparatchiks.

But something even more dangerous was getting loose yesterday. The sheer size of the crowds apparently permitted Mr Qassem and Mr Aoun to demand a different - or a rival - government. But it was not Shias but Mr Siniora's supporters who won the last elections in Lebanon. If that election result were no longer valid, what did this say about the Hizbollah's respect for electoral politics and Lebanon's constitution?

And the growing Shia-Sunni divisions here mirror, in faint, pale but frightening form, the tragedy of the two sects in Mesopot-amia. Shias have twice attacked the Beirut Sunni suburb of Tarek al-Jdeide, a Shia has been murdered and turned into an opposition "martyr", and the mufti of the Sunni Qoreitem mosque is reported as attacking the historic Shia imams, Ali and Hussein.

Mr Jumblatt has now called for students at the Lebanese University to study at home after a brawl on campus between Shia and Sunni undergraduates. "This university is for all Lebanese," Mr Jumblatt insisted. But is Lebanon?