Hariri supporters demonstrate in thousands against Hizbollah weapons

Rally in Beirut hears Lebanon's caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri call on Hizbollah to disarm.

Saad Hariri waves to supporters at a mass rally organised by the March 14 Movement in central Beirut yesterday.
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BEIRUT // Martyrs' Square in Beirut was a sea of people yesterday, as supporters of the new opposition led by Saad Hariri, Lebanon's caretaker prime minister, rallied against Hizbollah's weapons.

Tens of thousands came out in a show of support for the March 14 coalition, a day before the sixth anniversary of a massive demonstration in 2005 which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Addressing the crowds, Mr Hariri called on Hizbollah to disarm, while reaffirming his commitment to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon into the assassination in 2005 of his father Rafiq Hariri, the then prime minister.

"Do you accept the custodianship of arms and in the hands of someone other than the state?" he asked. "There is no freedom for a people whose security, economy and future are taken hostage by those who bear arms."

The March 14 coalition has recently increased its rhetoric against Hizbollah's weapons, which Mr Hariri has described as a domestic threat which is "poisoning" the country's political process.

However, Hizbollah maintains that its weapons are a necessary part of resistance efforts against Israel, which still occupies the disputed Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba hills.

While Hizbollah last week again urged the government to cease cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the Shia movement has not responded to the most recent calls to disarm.

Yesterday's demonstration at Martyrs' Square brought central Beirut to a standstill, with people waving Lebanese flags, fluttering alongside the light blue flags of Mr Hariri's Mustaqbal, or Future, movement, and flags identifying supporters of the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb groups.

"We are here to fight the party of arms, because it is a threat upon us," said Hatem, a 55-year-old university professor who would only be identified by his first name. "We believe that the country is not safe with this kind of militia. Its orders come from abroad, so it is a threat to the independence of our country."

Rodolphe Yared, 16, and his parents drove from the nearby town of Jounieh to Martyrs' Square as part of a convoy of hundreds of cars.

"We want to say no to an illegal army. I think it is possible that they could use these weapons against us," he said, while his mother, Marie, called for the change in Lebanon that she believes is necessary for her son to build a future in his home country.

"I don't want him to have to go to the US or the Gulf, I want him to stay here and have work and opportunities in the future," she said.

Nearby, young men climbed on top of a giant poster erected in the square bearing the images of some of those assassinated in recent years, including Rafiq Hariri and Wissam Eid, a police officer. Rani Germanos, a 45-year-old paramedic, stressed the importance of finding those responsible for the assassinations, while calling for an end to the "possession of weapons".

"They are using them internally and I personally believe that even against Israel they are not beneficial," he said. "We can act united and we can fight using the Lebanese army. I am not against Hizbollah the political party, only the weapons."

Many of the protesters, including Naamat Matbouli, wore white caps emblazoned with the word "La", the Arabic for "No", written in red.

"For me, 'No' means no to weapons," said Ms Matbouli, 56,who described herself as a "Hariri activist". "We don't want guns or to be without a government."

After months of simmering political tension over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon's investigation, Saad Hariri's cabinet collapsed on January 12, following the resignation of members of the Hizbollah-led March 8 bloc.

On January 25, Nijab Miqati was appointed as prime minister-designate but, more than six weeks later, he is still struggling to form a government, amid the growing chasm within Lebanese politics.

Earlier this month, the March 14 bloc announced that they would not take part in a government led by Mr Mikati, officially announcing their intention to move into the ranks of the opposition.

In addition to the issue of "non-state" weapons, the stalemate also centres on the indictments due to be released soon by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which are expected to name some members of Hizbollah.

Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, believes that Mr Mikati is likely to end up forming a cabinet of technocrats because of the continuing political stalemate.

"The formation of a cabinet in Lebanon is never an easy task, even in better times," he said. "It is always an arduous activity with very few political slots and many demands."

Dr Khashan said the March 14 coalition's decision to raise the issue of disarming Hizbollah comes at a time when they are struggling to hold on to power.

"They are very angry because they didn't expect them to be successful [in bringing down the Hariri government]," he said. "Yesterday's majority has become today's minority."