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Protests Against Lebanese Government Continue


Thousands of opposition protesters remain camped outside the Lebanese prime minister's office, demanding the resignation of his U.S.-backed government. Leaders of Hezbollah say the demonstration will not end until he goes. As VOA's Challiss McDonough reports from Beirut, many of the protesters say they are ready for the long haul.

At times, it seemed more like a street festival than a protest. Although only a few thousand camped out overnight in tents erected near the government building, the crowd grew much larger during the day. Music blared from countless loudspeakers, and the protesters never seemed to tire of dancing and waving the Lebanese flag. Families strolled through the demonstration together, eating ice cream and snacks.

Bands of young men with drums and horns marched, chanting, from one tent camp to another, sometimes at breakneck speed. But there are scores of Hezbollah "discipline" men deployed throughout the crowd to keep order.

When one rowdy group headed full-speed for the heavily guarded razor-wire barricade around the prime minister's office, they were quickly intercepted by burly men wearing white baseball caps and ID badges that say "discipline."

The protesters are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, or a national unity government, in which the opposition, including Hezbollah, would have one-third of the Cabinet posts and, therefore, a veto over government decisions.

But the prime minister is flatly refusing to step down, and has accused the protesters of trying to topple Lebanon's legitimate, constitutional government. His position has broad support in the international community.

The protesters carried banners of Hezbollah, and the other major Shi'ite party, Amal, as well as the popular Christian party, known as the Free Patriotic Movement, led by General Michel Aoun. His trademark orange scarves and banners were everywhere - although some of them were worn by Shi'ite Hezbollah supporters.

As music blared in one tent, rows of traditionally dressed Shi'ite women clapped in rhythm, as two orange-clad Christian women danced wildly and waved Lebanese flags. One of the Christians wore a bright orange wig, which was in sharp contrast to the many dark abayas and headscarves.

A science teacher from the southern village of Tebnine, Miriam Fawaz, called it a display of unity.

"We are one family in Lebanon, whatever they do," she said. "They try to separate us apart, but we are one family. Hezbollah, Aoun, any party in Lebanon is one family, you see? Let the other world leave us alone. We can live happily ever after, if they leave us alone. That's for sure."

It is not clear how long the stalemate will continue.

Fawaz said she was prepared to stay a month or a year, if it takes that long. But one or two other protesters, who seemed to be there more out of curiosity than commitment, quietly confided that they hoped it would all be over soon.

Fawaz also said it is possible that the two sides could negotiate a different solution. "That's up to our leaders to decide now," she added. "Because not everyone will say I want so, and I want so. But our leaders will decide, and we will stand by their side, you see?"

An editorial in the English-language Daily Star newspaper on Saturday called on both government and opposition leaders to resolve the stalemate through dialogue. The paper said both sides have proved that they can put bodies on the streets, in a organized and peaceful way. But the editorial said, without real dialogue between the parties, the alarmist rhetoric currently in use would only lead to frustration and perhaps violence. It concluded, "We now need the protagonists to put specific political ideas on the table, and sit down and discuss them rationally."

Tensions have been high in Beirut since the November 21 assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.

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