Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday warned that recent massive anti-government protests in Lebanon could plunge the country into civil war, accusing Israel and other countries of working to take advantage of the demonstrations to fuel unrest.
The head of the Iran-backed terror organization spoke as the protests, which initially were triggered by new proposed taxes that followed public spending cuts, dragged on into a ninth day.
Nasrallah said though the protests began as a popular expression of anger against corruption and deepening economic crisis, they were now being exploited by political rivals and international and regional powers who oppose Hezbollah.
“What does it mean that the Israelis get Lebanese among those who are in the Zionist entity to the border to show solidarity with the protests,” he was quoted saying by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television network. It was not immediately clear what he was referring to.
In an unusual move, Nasrallah spoke with a Lebanese flag behind him instead of the Hezbollah banner.
Nasrallah warned Lebanon could descend into civil war, conjuring fear of the country’s war that lasted 15 years and ended in 1990.
“I’m not threatening anyone, I’m describing the situation,” he said. “We are not afraid of the resistance [Hezbollah], we are afraid for the country.”
He did, however, praise the protesters for pressuring the government to back away from tax hikes, but reiterated his opposition to the resignation of the cabinet.
“In view of the difficult financial, economic and living situation in the country, in view of security and political tensions that are prevailing in the region … a vacuum will lead to chaos, to collapse,” he said, according to the Reuters news agency.
Hezbollah is a major political player in Lebanon and with its allies holds the majority in the cabinet. It is the only movement not to have disarmed after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Nasrallah also called on his supporters to leave the streets after clashes broke out in Beirut between them and anti-graft protesters.
Unprecedented protests have erupted in some Hezbollah strongholds, but some of its supporters have also taken offense to slogans against their leader.
In the capital’s main square, protesters fell silent to listen to Nasrallah’s speech broadcast on loudspeakers.
As it neared its end, the police moved in to separate Hezbollah supporters from the rest of the demonstrators, an AFP correspondent said.
Before they retreated, Hezbollah backers threw rocks, plastics bottles and branches at the other demonstrators, who responded in kind chanting “Revolution.”
Scuffles also broke out in central Beirut before the speech, when Hezbollah supporters entered the area to reject chants against Nasrallah, who was named by the protest movement as one among the political elite who must leave.
“Nasrallah is more honorable than all of them,” the pro-Hezbollah protesters chanted. They clashed with the protesters who were previously in the square until riot police tried to break up the fight. The incidents came shortly before Nasrallah was due to speak.
Anger has been building among Hezbollah supporters because the protesters named him, along with other corrupt politicians. At least two protesters were injured. The riot police encircled the pro-Hezbollah protesters, who carried batons, separating them from the other protesters.
But tension returned when the protesters moved down the main road, lobbing stones and at one point attacking a TV crew from a station aligned with a Hezbollah rival. Some protesters chanted for calm.
Banks, universities and schools remained closed Friday, the ninth day of nationwide protests, which initially were triggered by new proposed taxes that followed public spending cuts.
The demonstrators — who have thronged towns and cities across Lebanon — have been demanding the removal of the entire political class, accusing many across different parties of systematic corruption.
Numbers have declined since Sunday when hundreds of thousands took over Beirut and other cities in the largest demonstrations in years but could grow again over the weekend.
Lebanon’s largely sectarian political parties have been wrong-footed by the cross-communal nature of the protests.
Drawing in Christians and Muslims, Shiite, Sunni, and Druze, the street movement has largely been peaceful — evolving into celebrations after nightfall.
Waving Lebanese national flags rather than the partisan colors normally paraded at demonstrations, protesters have been demanding the resignation of all of Lebanon’s political leaders.
“All of them means all,” has been a popular slogan.
In attempts to calm the anger, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has pushed through a package of economic reforms, while President Michel Aoun offered Thursday to meet with representatives of the demonstrators to discuss their demands.
But those measures have been given short shrift by demonstrators, many of whom want the government to resign to pave the way for new elections.
The unprecedented mass protests come amid a deepening economic crisis in Lebanon. The country is one of the world’s most indebted nations, with public debt over 150 percent of the gross domestic product. The protesters accuse the politicians of amassing wealth even as the country gets poorer.