Thursday, February 22, 2007

Opposition reiterates threat of civil disobedience

Opposition reiterates threat of civil disobedience
By Hani M. Bathish
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: The opposition is considering ending its adherence to state institutions and beginning a civil-disobedience campaign against the government, Hizbullah politburo member Hajj Mahmoud Qmati said on Wednesday. Speaking to the Central News Agency, Qmati said the opposition was "seriously" considering further civil action to step up pressure on the ruling majority to form a national unity cabinet. He added that the opposition had followed through with each and every decision it had made in the past, making specific reference to the resignation of six ministers last November, an ongoing sit-in in the heart of the capital and a nationwide general strike held on January 23 that sparked sectarian clashes that left four dead. "We still await the results of current initiatives ... In a matter of days the results of these initiatives will be clear and in light of these results we will decide our next step, which will likely be civil disobedience provided the opposition reaches consensus on the matter," Qmati said.

Each side of the political divide in Lebanon continues to accuse the other of hindering progress in a Saudi-Iranian initiative to end the three-month-old deadlock. An agreement between Riyadh and Tehran could pave the way for an inter-Lebanese agreement. Diplomatic sources quoted in local daily Al-Akhbar Wednesday said efforts to resolve the deadlock were centered on reaching an agreement over unspecified changes to a draft for the international tribunal to try those accused of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the shape of a unity government. Qmati said Saudi Arabia has agreed to the "19 + 11" formula - meaning the parliamentary majority would receive 19 ministers and the opposition 11, and thereby veto power in the Cabinet - and has conveyed this to majority leader MP Saad Hariri. Hariri was said to have agreed to the formula, but rejected the offer because Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a key Christian ally in the March 14 Forces, did not, insisting on a 19 + 10 + 1 formula on Wednesday, with the one minister being independent. Speaking to reporters after a meeting of the LF parliamentary bloc, Geagea said any other formula would paralyze the government and create an authority vacuum in the country. But the Future Movement leader told Spanish Ambassador Miguel Benzo Perea, who visited the MP in Qoreitem, that he was confident the Saudi-Iranian efforts would produce results. "I found [Hariri] determined to defend many positions while respecting the opposition's stance," Perea said. "He still sees room to maneuver to arrive at an agreement in the future." Meanwhile, Premier Fouad Siniora met Wednesday with the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, to discuss the general situation. Pedersen said after the meeting that the latest report on the implementation of Resolution 1701 would be completed by mid-March.

In further meetings, Speaker Nabih Berri sent MP Ali Hassan Khalil to meet with former Premier Omar Karami in Ramlet al-Baida to discuss the latest developments in the deadlock. The crisis saw a bit of humor, with Berri and Geagea exchanging argumentative statements Wednesday, a day after the speaker threatened to reveal which parties were "really" blocking the Hariri tribunal. Geagea said that if Berri had "one stone [secret] in his mouth, I have 10," to which the speaker replied that "if the LF leader has so many stones in his mouth, he should open a quarry." Geagea responded by saying: "I do not understand the quarry business. I would rather open a hospital."

Meanwhile, former President Amin Gemayel bemoaned what he called a "cold civil war." "We have been living in a state of civil disobedience for a while now through constitutional disobedience," he said in response to the opposition threat of further civil disobedience. Egyptian Ambassador Hussein Darrar met with the former president later in the day. The ambassador said an Arab League initiative had not reached a dead end as no party had rejected it outright. But while some proposals have come to light as a result of the Saudi-Iranian endeavor, the ball remains firmly in Lebanon's court, Darrar added. Gemayel said the March 14 Forces want the opposition to participate in government but will not accept a paralysis of government institutions. He also claimed confusion at the opposition's desire to revise the draft of the tribunal after an agreement had been reached over the court during national talks held a year ago.

For his part, former Minister Suleiman Franjieh said the opposition was continuing to coordinate and discuss its next move should mediation fail. After meeting with a delegation from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party headed by SSNP leader Ali Qanso, Franjieh warned the ruling coalition not to take warnings from Berri lightly as anything the speaker said reflected the opposition's united position. The Marada Party leader accused March 14 of "shooting down" serious initiatives to end the crisis, noting that while Saudi Arabia had agreed to the 19 + 11 formula, the Americans and Europeans had not.

Hizbullah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem also blamed March 14 for the deadlock, saying: "We accepted the solution offered by [Arab League chief] Amr Moussa, but it was the other side that rejected it." "We also accepted the solution that later came out of the Iranian-Saudi meetings, which the other side accepted then changed their minds," he added.

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