The pro-Syrian opposition in Lebanon, led by Hezbollah, has called for mass protests aimed at bringing down the anti-Syrian government and replacing it with what they call a government of national unity. As VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Beirut, there are concerns that the anti-government demonstrations could spark violence, coming so soon after the assassination of the Lebanese minister of industry last week.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Lebanon's government has "proven incompetent and failed to deliver on its promises or achieve anything significant."
"If we want to tackle the crises and face the challenges that exist locally, regionally and internationally at this point, we must cooperate, join forces and unite our efforts," he said. "This can be achieved only through a government of national unity."
Hezbollah and its allies delayed their protests after the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel last Tuesday. All sides feared that anti-government protests at such a sensitive time might spark violence.
But Gemayel was buried a week ago, and Hezbollah clearly thinks the demonstrations have been delayed long enough. Shortly before Nasrallah made his statement on Hezbollah's al-Manar television station, the opposition groups announced that the protests would begin at three o'clock on Friday afternoon.
Amid continued fears of unrest, Nasrallah was at pains to make it clear that the demonstration is to be peaceful.
"All you Lebanese, from different regions, groups, beliefs, religions and backgrounds, you are all invited into a peaceful, popular and civilized movement," he said.
But, Lebanon's security services are taking no chances. Heavy barricades, barbed wire, armored vehicles and lots of soldiers have been deployed around the downtown area housing the main government complex. The prime minister and several members of his cabinet have been living in the compound since Gemayel was killed, out of fear for their own safety.
The president of the government-allied Future Youth movement, Nader Nakib, says opposition protests are fine, as long as they pursue their goals through peaceful methods. But he did not sound entirely convinced that they would.
"First of all, they have the right to demonstrate against the government," he said. "They don't have the right to do it in a forceful way," he said. "This is democracy, right? So they can demonstrate, they can do anything, but their freedom stops at the extent of our freedom and everybody else's freedom."
The government is headed by a coalition that calls itself the March 14 movement, named after the massive protests starting on that day in 2005 that eventually forced Syria out of the country. The cabinet, until recently, did contain six pro-Syrian ministers, five Shi'ites from Hezbollah and Amal, and one Christian loyal to President Emile Lahoud.
All six resigned recently over a plan to ask for an international tribunal to prosecute the people responsible for the string of political assassinations. The pro-Syrian opposition says the government is now illegitimate since it has no Shi'ite representation. They are calling for a government of national unity, in which the opposition parties together would have just over one-third of the posts, giving them veto power over cabinet decisions.
Hezbollah and Amal are not seeking more cabinet seats for themselves, since under Lebanon's "confessional system" of government, the number of seats for Shi'ites is fixed. They are demanding representation for their main Christian ally, General Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement. General Aoun has called on his supporters to join the protests.