This division culminated during the protest staged by the March 8 Forces in Downtown, Beirut, to demand the ousting of the government. Today, we recall the facts and proceedings of the protest.
Following the parliamentary elections of 2005, a new government led by Fouad Seniora and consisting of 24 ministers was formed on July 19. After its formation, the government grappled with numerous crises. Against the escalation of the political bickering, particularly over the international tribunal, and as the National Dialogue Committee failed to reach an agreement over the tribunal, the ministers of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement (Minister of Public Health Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, Minister of Labor Trad Hamadeh, Minister of Agriculture Talal Al-Sahili, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Fawzi Salloukh, Minister of Energy and Water Mohammad Fneish and Greek Orthodox Minister of Environment Yaacoub Sarraf who was close to President Emile Lahoud), tendered their resignations from the government on Saturday, November 11, 2006. They resigned in order to oust the government from a constitutional perspective (absence of all Shia’a ministers) even though it maintained the numerical quorum established in Article 69 of the Constitution which states that ‘the government shall be deemed resigned if it loses more than a third of the members specified in the Decree of its formation.’
“In response to the appeals of Speaker Nabih Berri for deliberations with the highest openness and positivity so as to reach an understanding over the mechanism that assures real and effective participation and assists in solving the crises and problems of the country, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement reaffirm what they had announced during the consultation sessions with respect to their commitment to the decisions of the National Dialogue table and to what the attendees had agreed upon with respect to the international tribunal and the preliminary approval of it.
Against the insistence of some parties within the majority forces to lay down preconditions and presuppositions for the consultations and against their inherent rejection of the formula of effective participation in a government of national unity that would be the guarantor for everyone, we hereby, after emphasizing what we had announced during the consultation sessions and reiterating our concern for stability, domestic peace and the national interests of all the Lebanese, submit the resignation of our ministers from the current government, wishing the rest of the parties all the best to the benefit of Lebanon.”
The head of the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, MP Mohammad Raad reported that the resignation was the consequence of the majority’s determination to monopolize power, adding that his bloc refused to be a mere annex to the majority. PM Fouad Seniora rejected the resignation of the ministers and insisted that they should continue to participate efficiently in the government and to assume their responsibilities.
Following the resignation of the Shia’a ministers and Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, the government, which had not lost its quorum, resumed its work and endorsed the establishment of a tribunal of an international character to prosecute the assassinators of PM Rafik Hariri during the session held on Monday, November 13.
As the government persisted in ignoring the resignation of the Shia’a representatives, the March 8 Forces took to the streets kicking off a series of actions calling for the government’s departure. An open-ended sit-in was staged in Downtown, Beirut on Friday, December 1, 2006, at 3:00 pm, in the presence of a massive crowd exceeding hundreds of thousands of protesters. MP General Michel Aoun addressed the protesters saying:
“.. Today we revive national coexistence and reinforce our national unity not in words but in a way of living we adopt in tranquility as a basis for the future… We do not seek to monopolize power, nor do we seek to obtain personal or even sectarian interests. But today we seek to reinforce the foundation of the country on the main pillars without which Lebanon cannot exist.
We consider that any factional support for the government coming from any country whatsoever is not friendly support but it is support that creates confrontation in the society as conspiracy looms over the nation and its unity… As we criticize him (the Prime Minister) today, we do not criticize, as some like to claim, the entire Sunni community. But our criticism and demands are directed towards a Prime Minister who has made a lot of mistakes and must step down and be replaced by another Sunni who is more qualified and who has more expertise and knowledge of the Lebanese social fabric and its national issues.
We suffer from many vices in our society and they have made corruption our destiny.
I urge the Prime Minister and his ministers to step down and end their duties until the end of the crisis and become like their outgoing colleagues so that we can come up with a government of national unity that has the capability to deal with national issues... And I call on all the people to persevere in the same enthusiasm and participate in this sit-in until we achieve our aims.”
MP Ali Hassan Khalil then took to the stage and said “we will stay here today, tonight, at the break of dawn and tomorrow in the morning and throughout the day until the President of the Republic issues a Decree appointing a new Prime Minister.” After the delivery of the speeches, the protest planners announced the commencement of an open-ended sit-in and the setting-up of tents in eight different sites to accommodate the demonstrators.
Prayers at the Grand Serail
The sit-in was characterized by several landmarks, foremost of which was the response to the rumors that circulated on the very first day suggesting that the protestors were intending to break into the Grand Serail. This news prompted the then Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani to hold Friday Prayers at the Serail in the presence of the Prime Minister and several ministers and MPs. “In brief, we would like to emphasize our absolute trust in and utter support for PM Fouad Seniora and we would like to tell everyone that democratic politics is practiced through constitutional institutions, not in the streets. Lebanon and its safety and stability must never be compromised and the Lebanese people, in all its diversity, can never let chaos sweep across its streets. They will hit the streets today and their rivals will stage a counter sit-in tomorrow,” said Mufti Qabbani, adding that it was utterly unacceptable to resort to the street to overthrow the government and that this was a serious precedent in the history of Lebanon that would allow any party to topple any government that is not to their liking in the future.
End of protest
The sit-in persisted but with less momentum amidst waning popular attendance. Although the majority of tents became empty, the vicinity of the sit-in site remained closed and life was interrupted. The sit-in was not lifted until May 7 when Hezbollah stormed the streets of Beirut following a Cabinet session over the dismantling of its mobile network. The events of May 7 opened up a horizon for the political solution, which eventually materialized in Doha, Qatar, where the Lebanese leaders convened many rounds of deliberations. These culminated in the approval of the Doha Agreement, which stipulated the formation of a National Unity Government, the election of Michel Suleiman as President of the Lebanese Republic and the adoption of the amended 1960s electoral law.
No sooner had Speaker Nabih Berri declared the end of the sit-in on Wednesday, May 21, 2008, than the protesters hurried to remove the empty tents and restore things to how they had been prior to the crisis, after 538 days of protests.