Rising violence against Lebanese protesters has forced the anti-government demonstrators to consider the creation of a “shadow government” of competent figures to negotiate an end to the country’s deadlock over cabinet formation.
The need for protesters to unite behind a leadership became urgent on Sunday and Monday nights when security forces intervened to halt attacks on them by Hizbullah and Amal thugs who swept into Beirut's central squares on motorbikes, beat protesters, destroyed sit-in tents, and smashed shop and car windows.
When Hizbullah supporters waved the movement's yellow flag and chanted "Shia, Shia!", protesters responded "This is not Iran" and called the attackers "terrorists". Protest gatherings were also targeted in the southern city of Tyre, a Shia stronghold.
Such violent incidents are a far cry from 2000, when Hizbullah was celebrated for driving the Israeli army and its Lebanese allies from south Lebanon, and reflect a serious decline in the popularity of a movement dedicated to the welfare of Lebanon's traditionally disadvantaged Shias, who comprise the country's largest community. Hizbullah is especially concerned over the defection of young Shias to the protesters.
So far, the army and police have protected anti-government protesters, who have remained peaceful during 41 days of mass action in spite of repeated provocations from Hizbullah and Amal, which have emerged as defenders of the status quo.
One protester has been killed by a soldier and six other people have died in connection with the uprising.
Ex-prime minister Saad Hariri – who has proposed a technocratic government acceptable to the protesters – on Tuesday withdrew his candidacy for the premiership and urged president Michel Aoun to form a government quickly. Aoun insists on a cabinet in which veteran politicians would hold the "sovereign" portfolios of interior affairs, defence, finance and foreign affairs while technocrats would be appointed to other ministries.
This formula is acceptable to Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement and its Hizbullah and Amal allies, but has been roundly rejected by protesters who seek the fall of all politicians who, they say, have looted the state for 30 years.
If the protesters achieve their ultimate aim of bringing down the political elite, they intend to use elections to scrap Lebanon’s sectarian powersharing model of governance and adopt a secular democratic system. If they succeed, faith-based parties would face dissolution and veteran politicians prosecution for corruption.
Concerned that the 70,000-strong army could repeat earlier behaviour by fracturing into sectarian factions when challenged, the UN Security Council has urged all Lebanese people to engage in “intensive national dialogue and to maintain the peaceful character of the protests”.
The Trump administration appears to be reluctant to offer Lebanon's hard-pressed army support, even at this critical time. Well before the protests began, the White House suspended $105 million (€95 million) in military aid largely used to purchase US-made equipment.
While previous administrations argued that Lebanon’s army is a counterweight to Hizbullah’s paramilitaries, Trump administration officials and politicians want to end funding to the army due to its failure to disarm Hizbullah, although this could split the army and reignite civil conflict.