BEIRUT, Lebanon – After last year’s Cedar Revolution, the counter-revolution began Friday.

In a massive display of people power that echoed Lebanon’s 2005 uprising against Syria’s presence, hundreds of thousands of supporters of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement and its allies swarmed into the downtown area of Beirut and pledged to continue to occupy the symbolic heart of the city until the U.S.-backed government resigns.

As night fell, protest organizers set up tents, portable toilets and water tanks to cater to the thousands of people planning to sleep there overnight, setting the stage for what could become a marathon standoff with the government, holed up just yards away behind a barricade of police, coiled barbed wire and armored personnel carriers.

Lebanon’s embattled Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who has vowed not to give in to the pressure, was briefly glimpsed on a balcony of the nearby governmental palace but was loudly booed by the crowd.

“Raise your voices so that Saniora can hear you!” one of the organizers shouted to the chanting crowd from a podium set up a hundred yards from the gates of the government palace. “Tell him we don’t want a government that sells out our country!”

The mood was festive, spirits were high, and the protesters said they were determined to heed the instructions of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to keep their demonstration peaceful. They waved Lebanon’s cedar flag, the symbol of that earlier revolution, turning the downtown area into a sea of red, white and green that recalled the epic protests of 2005.

These protesters said they intend to copy the tactics deployed by those Cedar Revolutionaries, an alliance of Christians, Druze and Sunnis who camped out in the downtown area until Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government resigned and Syria agreed to end its 30-year occupation of their country.

“I’ll stay here weeks, even months if necessary until the government resigns,” said Haitham Azzi, 25, a dubbing technician with a recording company who brought a backpack crammed with camping gear to the event and plans to commute to his job nearby. “This is our democratic right.”

But the stakes are higher now, and with both sides vowing not to give in it is unclear where this crisis will end. America’s failings in Iraq have undermined the credibility of its allies in the eyes of many Arabs across the region, and in Lebanon, last summer’s ruinous war with Israel has emboldened Hezbollah to seek a greater share of political power.

The U.S. reiterated its support for the Saniora government, which was elected in the wake of the Cedar Revolution.

“We do remain very concerned that Hezbollah and its allies, with support from Syria and the Iranian government, are continuing to work to destabilize Lebanon,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey in Washington.

Many protesters, however, said they are proud to count Syria and Iran among Lebanon’s friends and accused Saniora’s government of being too pro-American.

“This government gives priority to the interests of the U.S. and Israel at the expense of Lebanon’s national interests,” said Mohammed Ayoub, 40, who traveled from the Bekaa Valley with his wife, four daughters and two sons.

“Syria and Iran are not Lebanon’s enemy. Israel is an enemy and has destroyed much of Lebanon,” added Ayoub, whose gas station was destroyed during Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon’s infrastructure last summer.

Most members of the crowd were Shiites who support the Iranian-backed Hezbollah or its secular Shiite ally, Amal. But a sizeable number were Christians, loyalists of the maverick Christian Gen. Michel Aoun, who once fought Syria but has teamed up with Hezbollah to seek the ouster of the government.

Aoun was the keynote speaker and he urged the crowd to sustain their protests until the government falls.

“I wish that members of the government were with us today, instead of hiding behind barbed wire,” Aoun said, addressing the crowd from behind a bullet-proof shield.

The presence of Aoun’s supporters many wearing the orange colors of his political party, lent credence to the claims of Hezbollah leaders that their opposition movement is not sectarian. Several other small, pro-Syrian Christian factions were there, and Hezbollah claims the support of small segments of the Druze and Sunni communities.

The massive crowd filled two downtown squares and stretched back along two major avenues as far as the eye could see, easily eclipsing the number of government supporters who rallied in the downtown area last week for the funeral of assassinated Christian minister Pierre Gemayel. It did not seem as large as the renowned March 14, 2005, rally after the assassination of former Prim Minister Rafik Hariri. Organizers said that demonstration was attended by a million people, but police in Lebanon do not provide reliable crowd counts.

The question of numbers is considered crucial, however, because in 2005, the Christians, Sunnis and Druze who were united by rage at the assassination of Hariri said they represented a majority of Lebanese. They then proved it by winning a majority in parliamentary elections. Hezbollah did not dispute their victory and for the first time joined the government as a junior partner.

But Hezbollah says the war has tipped the balance, turning Lebanese against a government with ties to a U.S. administration that was seen to be supportive of Israel’s onslaught against Lebanon. Nasrallah has made it clear he does not want Hezbollah to dominate a new government but he wants at least enough seats in the Cabinet to give the pro-Syrian alliance veto powers over government decisions.

“Today the opposition have proved that we are clearly the majority now,” said Mariam Ghaddar, 17, who had traveled to the rally from a village near the southern town of Sidon with a dozen or so of her female relatives, all of them neatly dressed in headscarves. “This government must face the same fate as the one it pulled down before.”


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