Lebanon opposition to stage national protest strike

BEIRUT (AFP) — The Lebanese opposition called Saturday for a one-day general strike, stepping up a protest campaign to bring down the Western-backed government that has paralysed the nation’s leadership for weeks.

The stoppage called for Tuesday marked the first escalation by the opposition since its supporters began an open-ended sit-in around government offices in central Beirut on December 1 to demand a national unity Cabinet. “In the face of the obstinacy of the government barricaded behind the walls of the Grand Serail, the opposition calls on its supporters to step up their peaceful and democratic protests and on all Lebanese to observe a general strike on Tuesday,” an opposition statement said. The action was announced the day after Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed that the opposition would be taking more action to see that its demands are met.

The immediate target of the industrial action, which was first announced by a pro-opposition trade union confederation, was an austerity package unveiled by the government earlier this month ahead of a major donors’ conference in Paris on Thursday.

“In accordance with its peaceful plan of action against the reforms proposed by the prime minister, the General Conference of Workers of Lebanon is calling a general strike for Tuesday… to put an end to the savage cuts being put forward,” a statement said.

But the opposition stressed that the strike was just one part of its campaign for a revision of Lebanon’s confessionally-based electoral law and the holding of fresh parliamentary elections. “Stability will return to Lebanon only with the formation of a new government that can lay the basis for a new era with a just electoral law and early elections,” it said.

The opposition charges that Siniora’s government has been illegal ever since the departure of six pro-Syrian ministers in November on the grounds that the power-sharing arrangements established after Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war require the representation of all the country’s confessional groups. But Cabinet members hit out at the opposition’s decision to create new disruption just two days before Thursday’s donor meeting which had been called to help Lebanon cope with the estimated $5.5 billion losses from Israel’s devastating summer air war against Hizbollah.

“People aren’t going to heed a strike call,” said Communications Minister Marwan Hamadeh.

“Isn’t it shameful that parties that claim to put Lebanon’s interests first are sabotaging a rare chance to help people?” In a wide-ranging interview with Hizbollah’s Al Manar television late Friday Nasrallah had pledged “major and effective action” by the opposition to escalate its protests. He stopped short of calling for the Paris aid conference to be called off but sharply criticised its motives.

“The Paris III conference is being held to help one side and not to support Lebanon,” the Hizbollah leader charged, warning that the Siniora government’s dependence on its Western and Gulf Arab backers would be its undoing.

“All governments that need outside support are doomed to collapse,” he said. To address donor concerns about Lebanon’s spiralling public debt which now stands at $41 billion, Siniora’s Cabinet endorsed a five-year economic reform package on January 4.

The plan foresees increases in VAT and cuts in fuel and power subsidies as well as privatisation of the telephone and electricity sectors, but risks remaining a dead letter like the rest of the government’s legislative programme with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri siding with the opposition.

Nasrallah, whose movement’s standing was sharply boosted by the fierce resistance it put up against the 34-day Israeli offensive in July and August, also crowed over Tuesday’s resignation of Israeli army chief Dan Halutz.

“When I heard the news, I was happy,” Nasrallah said. “We were expecting this moment… It’s the first war that Israel has lost and in which it’s failed to achieve its objectives.”

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