(photo credit: AP)
Downtown in the Lebanese capital has been turned into a virtual tent city by the tens of thousands of anti-government protesters who have descended on the city from across the country.
Rows of makeshift toilets, boxes of food and water supplies, and hundreds of white tents have sprouted up across the road from the government complex. Security is tight. Soldiers have cordoned off all surrounding roads and blocked entrances with barbed wires and armored personnel carriers.
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and members of his anti-Syrian coalition government are holed up inside, afraid for their lives, but vowing that that they will not give in.
"This is an attempted coup," said Druse MP Walid Jumblatt, a senior coalition member. "But we will remain strong. We are facing a weird situation. There is a legitimate government and an illegitimate government that wants to topple it."
Jumblatt accused Syria and Iran of using the demonstration as a front for trying to block the formation of an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
On Friday, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters heeded a call by Hizbullah to take to the capital's streets to demand the resignation of the Westernbacked government.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused it of being illegal, saying it had neither met "internal demands" nor achieved anything significant. Hizbullah and its allies are demanding at least a third of cabinet seats, a demand the government rejects because it fears it would provide the Shi'ite group veto power over key decisions.
Speaking at the start of the demonstration, opposition leader Michel Aoun accused Saniora of hiding behind his army.
"A leader who has his people behind him does not need barbed wire," he said to loud applause.
PhD history student Chic Gaafar, 31, said he and his friends had driven up on Friday morning from their homes in the south of the country. He wasn't worried about the classes he was missing because "this is much more important for my people and my country. I will stay here for as long as necessary - one month, two months, it's not a problem. We want Mr. Saniora and his government to resign."
It's a message reflected on the banners and posters that now decorate the city.
"Proud, loud and demanding power," they boasted.
"We want a clean government," they insisted.
Hizbullah organizer Ghasan Darwish said the movement was satisfied with the demonstration so far.
"Hizbullah is used to such big numbers," he said. "Everything is being done to provide for our people. People here survived 34 days of bombings from Israel; this is nothing. We have lots and lots of patience."
But so too does Saniora. He has vowed his government won't fall. In a nationally televised address, he said, "Lebanon's independence is threatened and its democratic situation is in danger."
Saniora and his supporters termed the campaign a coup attempt led by neighboring Syria and its ally Iran, a stance echoed by Washington.
Backing for Saniora also came from France, Britain and Italy.
Following talks with the Lebanese prime minister in Beirut, visiting British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the government had been elected by the Lebanese people.
"I believe the world community supports the constitutional government," she said.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi said in Rome that he had spoken with Saniora and found him "determined to go on and resist intimidation."
For his part, Saniora urged Hizbullah to return to the negotiating table.
"This government will continue as long as it enjoys the support and backing of the constitutional institutions in the country, most importantly parliament," he told reporters Saturday.
"Taking to the streets will not lead us anywhere... There is just one way to solve our problems and that is to sit behind a table to discuss all our differences," he said. "Other than that it is a waste of time, waste of resources and waste of opportunities."
As he spoke, thousands of Hizbullah supporters were noisily clamoring around the hundreds of tents set up in central Beirut, where they vowed to stay until Saniora's government falls.
Until late Saturday night the crowd chanted Hizbullah revolutionary and nationalist songs. At times the atmosphere resembled a carnival. Young men sat around playing cards, smoking water pipes and perusing the day's newspapers. Women prayed in a separate tent with their young children, the Lebanese flag wrapped around their foreheads, playing nearby.
But people here wondered how long this can carry on. Something has to give. Will the police continue manning the streets indefinitely, or will they force the protesters to go home? Despite the quiet so far, fears are rife that violent clashes are not far away.
AP contributed to this report.
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