Siniora Cabinet girds for rough ride as opposition launches general strike

Opposition coalition forces demonstrate on 1 December 2006 (D.X. Guerrero)

BEIRUT: As the Hizbullah-led opposition forces move on Tuesday to launch a general strike that promises to paralyze the country, officials within the ruling parliamentary majority have urged Lebanese to ignore the calls for a work stoppage. After almost two months of an opposition sit-in in the heart of the capital aimed at bringing down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the campaign has progressed to ambitions of paralyzing the periphery of the capital and the rest of the country.

However, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah vowed on Monday that “we will not raise arms against anyone.”

Speaking during an Ashoura ceremony in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Nasrallah reiterated earlier pledges that “if they kill 1,000 of us, we will not use our weapons against them.”

“They will try to belittle the strike,” he predicted, “with the media and officials showing open shops as proof that we have failed.”

Addressing his supporters, Nasrallah said: “I have faith that you will remain disciplined and will avoid any insults and sectarian slogans.”

But the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, MP Michel Aoun, warned people that “if you have no business being out, then just stay home.”

In a news conference on Monday at his residence in Rabieh, Aoun said: “There will be people who will instigate riots and try to hamper the strike, so stay home and out of harm’s reach.”

The head of the Internal Security forces, Ashraf Rifi, told The Daily Star there is “100 percent” cooperation between the army and the police on “keeping the country safe” on Tuesday.

“You will see us everywhere, the ISF and army will be deployed throughout Lebanon,” he said, promising a presence along major roads into Beirut.

“We will protect the right of every Lebanese to strike, and we will protect the right of every Lebanese who doesn’t want to strike,” he said, adding: “We will protect the right of the citizen to move around.”

The heads of the security forces met with Siniora along with Defense Minister Elias Murr and Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa to discuss the specifics of the security plan that will be in effect on Tuesday.

“They have been instructed not to use force or fire,” Murr told the media. “Anyone trying to cause trouble will be arrested and taken to court.”

As The Daily Star went to press, the districts of Jezzine, Koura, Akkar, Kesrouan, Metn, Zghorta, Bekaa, Zahle, several Southern towns and the southern suburbs of Beirut, had all declared their solidarity with the strike.

Aoun also dismissed any fears of “Christian strife” and said “the strike is about social problems and has nothing to do with religions or sects.”

“We hear of threats of being made by employers to the employee wanting to strike,” said Aoun, adding that “the right to strike is a right for everyone.”

Meanwhile, March 14 leaders called on Lebanese to defy the strike and observe “a normal working day.”

“While striking and demonstrating is a right protected by the Constitution … it doesn’t give the strikers the right to pressure and threaten the rest of the country,” said a statement released by the March 14 Forces after a meeting on Monday.

The March 14 Forces compared the opposition strike to “militia tactics.”

“The strike will not achieve its goals, especially the hampering of the Paris III conference,” said the statement.

Siniora also called on all Lebanese to “ignore the scare-mongering campaign.”
Opposition sources said Tuesday will only mark the start of the escalation and added that protests could last for days and possibly shut down the airport and Beirut’s port.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a member of the March 14 Forces camp, called on people “to head to work tomorrow because fateful choices for the future of Lebanon are at stake.”

Druze leader MP Walid Jumblatt insisted that Tuesday would be a normal work day and called on the army and security forces to prevent any major disruption.

Sources close to the Free Patriotic Movement told The Daily Star to expect anything “from tire burning to chains of human shields to women sitting in the middle of the roads.”

Other sources told The Daily Star that the opposition had collected more than 5,000 tires in Sidon and placed them in a football pitch located 12 kilometers away from the city. The sources added that major roads would be closed in Sidon and Zahrani as of 6 a.m.

“Each area will have its own way of striking and expressing their discontent with the government,” said Hizbullah MP Amin Cherri.

Cherri said residents of the southern suburbs will hit the old airport road, but “not block the airport.”

“People will gather and block major roads, and then block off institutions,” he said.

The FPM released a statement asking supporters to gather in front of FPM offices in all parts of the country. An FPM spokesperson told The Daily Star that they will start at 7 a.m. Tuesday and move to block main highways all over Lebanon.

The spokesperson said the FPM will avoid friction with security forces and will “tactically withdraw” when security forces come to reopen closed roads, moving elsewhere to block other roads - almost in a “cat and mouse” chase.

“People who want to open [their businesses or shops] are free to do so we will not force anyone to close against their will,” he said.

Meanwhile, Speaker Nabih Berri met with US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman on Monday.

“The United States is not interested in imposing solutions,” Feltman told the media after the meeting.

“We sincerely hope the door is still open to the Arab mediation that showed such promise in bringing the Lebanese together,” he said.

This article was originally published by The Daily Star

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