Across the Bay

Monday, February 28, 2005

Healthy Skepticism

Rich is holding his breath, as are all of us, expecting some sort of Syrian or loyalist backlash for the setback handed to them today. There may already be something going on:

[T]here are reports of violence in Tripoli (Karami's primary base of support) and some other areas in northern Lebanon - the strong points of Syrian support. Many people in Tripoli are very upset that their man was forced to resign - they are walking around in hordes, burning tires, burning cars, and the footage on television (LBC right now) shows quite a chaotic scene. With all the pressure that has been on Syria in the past two weeks, it would make perfect sense that the Syrians may want to create a diversion, and it seems that they may have done just that. What has happened here in just two hours was (1) A second news story has been created, demanding local news time, thereby taking some of the cameras off the protests in the downtown area; and (2) Counterdemonstrations - the thing that the opposition feared most.

This report from Lebanon Wire confirms the story and adds another sad element:

A supporter of outgoing Prime Minister Omar Karameh died of a gunshot wound late Monday in the Syrian-backed premier's hometown of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, medics and witnesses told AFP.

Fadi al-Ahmad, 22, was pronounced dead in a nearby hospital, medics there said. He was fired on inside the compound of Karameh's family home from a nearby rooftop, a statement from the outgoing premier's office said. Police said they had no immediate word on the shooting.

The announcement in parliament earlier Monday of Karameh's resignation in the face of mass demonstrations set off protests by some 2,000 of his supporters who fired into the air and set ablaze tyres to block off roads.

They also tore down banners strung up by the opposition and broke the windows of two cars parked outside an opposition MP's home.

This other report describes the mood among Karameh's supporters in his hometown of Tripoli:

[I]n stark contrast to the scenes of joy in the capital and other cities, the mood was one of anger in Karameh's home town of Tripoli. His supporters launched volleys of machine-gun fire into the air, blocked traffic with burning tyres and tore down opposition banners.

"With our blood, with our soul, we will defend you o Karameh," they shouted, along with slogans insulting leading opposition figure, the Druze MP Walid Jumblatt and voicing their backing for Syria.

This may be a distraction and may develop some more, but one must remember that this is his base, and that's somewhat expected. The majority of the Sunni community however has been on the side of the opposition, even in Tripoli. Also, the Islamist Jamaa Islamiyya, which has quit the loyalist camp (but didn't join the opposition yet), is also based in the north. This is just to keep things in perspective. I will keep watching this, as it's likely that the Syrians and the loyalists will attempt to exploit it. But it's not really unexpected.

Meanwhile, the Syrians have promised to provide a timetable for the troop withdrawal within the Taef framework. This may be another of those attempts at an agreement under the "Arab umbrella." So far there's been a few of those, with nothing doing on the ground.

N.B. I am waiting for a friend's piece to go up this week before I post my Hizbullah post, so I ask for your patience. Besides, I'm in the middle of grading my students' mid-term papers! However, it will be interesting to see if the resignation provokes any movement at all on the part of Hizbullah. I doubt it, but they were given a break today, by not having to cast a vote of confidence on Karami's government. So they can continue to claim that they're on the fence dialoguing with everyone, even when they've been effectively in the Syrian camp. More to come shortly.