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Lebanon: Tensions Rise As Government Prepares To Meet On Tribunal

Lebanese mourners carrying the coffin of Pierre Gemayel during his funeral procession in Beirut, November 23 (epa) Lebanon remains tense after this week's assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, a critic of Syria's involvement in Lebanon. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc asked Radio Farda correspondent Mahtab Farid in Beirut about the situation on the ground.

RFE/RL: What is the mood on the streets of Beirut now, after the massive show of anti-Syrian feelings at Pierre Gemayel's funeral on November 23? Is it still tense?

Mahtab Farid: Basically, the mood is very volatile here in Lebanon. For the most part, people are very peaceful, however, there is such civil unrest as you mentioned because of the recent developments, [and] of the [government] meeting that is going to take place in Beirut at about 6 p.m., which Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has called for [discussing] the [UN] tribunal [to investigate the murder of former Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri. However, Hizballah, they were going to start a protest last week, but because of the recent [Pierre Gemayel] assassination they have stopped until next week. But you can't really say anything. Everything is on such a standby. People are anxious, they are waiting [to see] what's going to happen, [the situation] is so confusing [at this moment] basically in Lebanon.

RFE/RL: From your discussions with the people there, do you sense any risk of more unrest and, if so, what could cause it?

Farid: Yesterday I went and visited the area [of Beirut] which is mostly run by Hizballah, and Shi'a people, it's called Harat Hreik, and when I was talking to people, they are very, very pro-Hizballah, and are extremely proponent of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah. So at any point, if they get the feeling that Mr. Nasrallah wants to start something, he has a lot of people who will support him in that Shi'a area. He is very influential, as a matter of fact: last night there was a protest of about a couple of hundred of people protesting because of [what they called] the disrespect toward Hassan Nasrallah during the funeral of Gemayel [where] people were saying that Iran, Siria, and Hizballah were the cause for his assassination -- so a lot of Nasrallah supporters went on the streets last night saying, why is he being disrespected, and he had to stop them, he did not want this unrest to go on. So this is an example of how much influence he has. The minute he declares something, he's going to have people going on the streets.

RFE/RL: After the latest developments, is there any indication on either side that they are now getting closer to a point where they are not going to be willing to make any concessions at all?

Farid: On both sides there is a lose-lose situation, because the government is on the verge of collapse, as you know there were seven [pro-Syrian] ministers who resigned recently, out of 24. Now there are 17 ministers, and according to the constitution they need two-thirds of the vote plus one for every decision they make in order [for that decision] to make it to the parliament. And as of now, according to the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, the meeting called for tonight by anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is unconstitutional. So I can't see how either side would win. We have to see what the next weeks are going to bring about and when you talk to people there is this uncertain feeling about what's going to happen, and I would assume there has to be some kind of international intervention to really end this chaos.

RFE/RL: However feeble their margin, the government do have the necessary constitutional majority to vote on the decision. Furthermore, Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa, also an anti-Syrian, has announced that he is returning to his duties after a nine-month absence. So, why would the pro-Syrians and the Hizballah question its constitutionality?

Farid: The pro-Syrian [part of the] government [and parliament] doesn't see it as a legitimate meeting. So they say that whatever meeting without their participation, is absolutely illegitimate. And, with the power and the people they have, they may stop a lot of upcoming decisions. And I think a lot of the people in that neighborhood in that pro-Hizballah neighborhood that I visited, they were very angry at how Siniora is not a very powerful leader, and [they said] he is absolutely taking orders from the United States and Israel, and they were a little upset about that as well.

RFE/RL: A few months ago, after the Israel-Hizballah war, huge masses pf Hizballah supporters celebrated what they said was victory against the Jewish state on the streets of Beirut. This week, we've seen a very different group of people -- also very numerous -- come out in force to mourn Gemayel. Are there in fact two different Lebanons and, if so, can they coexist?

Farid: I went to both sides and I spoke with a lot of people. They are extremely peace-loving people, and when you talk to the actual people, they don't wish anything bad on the other group, whether pro- or anti-Syrian. I mean, they're not hostile, they're extremely friendly, they all want to live together and you don't sense any disrespect for the other side. It's just that I think both sides are trying to exist. As far as polarization is concerned, I would say I don't think it has a lot to do with pro- or anti-Syrian government [feeling]. From what I observed, the Gemayel family is extremely famous here and Pierre Gemayel was extremely popular among the young people, he was only 34 years old. And his father [former President Amin Gemayel] immediately came out after the assassination and asked for peace gatherings, and he said, please, don't take to the streets, don't cause any chaos, and people said, all of a sudden he became the father of Lebanon. So I would say it has a lot to do with the Gemayel family and the fact that the former minister was very, very popular among Lebanese people here.