Sporadic fighting is continuing in the city today, entire quarters are spookily empty of people, armed men of various descriptions have set up checkpoints in ‘their’ neighbourhoods and streets. The airport road is sill blocked, in many places with cement blocks and tons of sand and earth, and tents have been set up for a permanent blockade. Protesters have just closed the Damascus road near Masraa on the Syrian border. With that and the airport, there are now only 2 passage points on the Syrian border and the port left to leave the country. Hizbullah has yesterday night given the government 48 hours to revoke its decisions on Shuqair’s reassignment and the investigaion into HA’s telecom network, threatening to ‘escalate ongoing riots into civil disobedience’ and keeping the airport road closed off if its demands are not met. Nasrallah is to give his first press conference in 2 years later today.
Meanwhile, ‘Prime Minister Fouad Saniora’s government will likely send a memorandum to the United Nations and the Arab League on the latest developments in Lebanon. The daily An Nahar, which carried the report on Thursday, did not give further details. It quoted ministerial sources as saying that the government is seriously considering declaring a state of emergency, particularly after it became obvious that Hizbullah used the general strike called by labor unions on Wednesday to “deploy its gunmen throughout Beirut and besiege the airport.”‘
Also meanwhile, no doubt coincidentally: ‘U.S. President George Bush and Premier Fouad Saniora will hold talks in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 18, Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser has said. On May 17, Bush will have breakfast with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and meet separately with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Hadley said Wednesday. The following day, Bush will meet with Iraq’s Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Ahmed Saleh. Also on May 18, Bush will hold separate meetings with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saniora, Hadley said.Bush will “reaffirm his personal commitment to peace” between Israel and the Palestinians during his strongly symbolic visit next week to the Middle East, according to Hadley. The U.S. president also plans to talk about the rising price of oil when he visits Saudi Arabia. During his May 13-18 trip to the region, Bush will also attend celebrations for Israel’s 60th anniversary, Hadley said. Furthermore, Bush will show his “steadfast opposition to extremists and their state sponsors, Iran and Syria,” he added.’
Nowlebanon’s David Kenner speculates on the next steps to come and remarks on the total absence of Aoun’s FPM supporters in the protests. This is indeed a strictly Hizbullah action (with some help from Amal): ‘Lost in the mix has been the opposition’s Christian cover, FPM leader Michel Aoun and his supporters. While Aoun had previously called for peaceful demonstrations on Wednesday, the FPM was nearly invisible on the streets of Beirut. While Hezbollah and Amal supporters protested in areas where they dominate, supposed Aounist strongholds were quiet. In areas outside of Beirut, such as Jbeil, Baabda and the Metn region, schools and businesses were open as usual.’ (…) ‘The Shqeir sacking has put the Party of God in a tricky situation. Hezbollah has demanded he be reinstated, but if the government stands firm – as all indications suggest it will – the party could find itself backed into a corner. Its only option would be yet further escalation, a move its masters in Iran may be reluctant to allow, especially without erstwhile allies the Free Patriotic Movement to provide Hezbollah with pan-sectarian cover. Indeed, so far, most of the fighting has occurred between Shia opposition protestors and Sunni government supporters, taking on a worrying sectarian tone. On Wednesday evening, Grand Mufti of the Republic Sheikh Mohammad Qabbani appeared on live television denouncing Hezbollah and its occupation of Beirut. While Qabbani called upon the opposition to withdraw their gunmen, he also warned that “the Sunnis are fed up” with Hezbollah practices.’ (…) ‘The security situation is near to its breaking point, and Lebanon can do little but brace for even more conflict in the coming days. Both sides are apparently unwilling to back down, and many Lebanese are asking if this is indeed the end game they have both wished for and feared in equal measure.’
Nicholas Blanford in Time: A Cell phone Civil War in Lebanon: ‘A Shi’ite source close to Hizballah said that armed fighters had deployed to the city center where opposition supporters have been encamped for 18 months in an anti-government sit-in. The fighters are on stand-by in case the camp comes under attack, the source said. Although neither side seeks a civil war, their game of brinkmanship is growing increasingly dangerous. “The problem is that things might get out of hand,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “If it gets much worse then the whole truce situation which has kept the peace these last few months might end.” Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s leader, is scheduled to give a rare press conference Thursday at which he is expected to outline his party’s future course of action. But the fact that the reclusive Hizballah leader is speaking to the press at all underlines the seriousness of the situation: The last time he appeared before the media was on July 12, 2006 — the day war broke out with Israel.’