Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement warned on Friday that a power vacuum could tip the country into civil war, suggesting that adversaries including the United States and Israel were seeking to exploit an unprecedented wave of demonstrations to provoke conflict.
Lebanon has been swept by more than a week of nationwide protests against a political elite accused of corruption, mismanagement of the state finances and leading the country toward an economic collapse unseen since the 1975-90 civil war.
A report from credit rating agency S&P was the latest to sound the alarm over the financial situation. Banks remain closed and have said they will only reopen when life returns to normal.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose movement is part of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s coalition government, urged his followers to stay away from the protests after they clashed with demonstrators in Beirut.
The heavily armed Shi’ite group is widely seen as the most powerful player in Lebanon and is part of an Iranian-led regional alliance that is in conflict with U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states that have political allies in the country.
Nasrallah praised the protest movement for forcing the government to agree a state budget without new taxes and “unprecedented” reforms including draft laws to lift banking secrecy, recover looted wealth and fight corruption.
But he also said the demonstrations that began spontaneously had been exploited by regional and international foes.
He reiterated Hezbollah’s rejection of the resignation of the Hariri government and any move to topple Hezbollah’s Christian ally, President Michel Aoun, saying this would leave a void.
“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,” Nasrallah said.
He said if Lebanon remained shut down by the protests, people including the army would not get their wages and the country would be plunged into complete chaos.
“I am afraid that there are those who want to take our country and generate social, security and political tensions and to take it to civil war,” Nasrallah said.
“God willing nothing like this will happen … but I tell you there is information and doubts about this matter.”
The protests took a more violent turn on Friday when groups supporting Hezbollah pushed into a peaceful demonstration in Beirut, scuffling with protesters and forcing riot police to intervene.
Dressed in black t-shirts common to Hezbollah supporters, the men shouted “We heed your call, Nasrallah”.
Several protesters were injured in the scuffles, witnesses said.
After Nasrallah spoke, Hezbollah supporters waving the group’s yellow flag took to the streets of the southern suburbs of Beirut, the group’s stronghold.
“They’re trying to scare us with war. But they are the generation of war, we are an educated generation and know how to get along with one another,” said physiotherapist Bilal al Baba, 28, demonstrating in central Beirut.
Another protester, Maria, said Nasrallah’s speech encouraged her and her friends to come back out to protest. “The entire country was paralyzed waiting for what he had to say,” she said.
Nasrallah urged protesters to accept Aoun’s invitation for dialogue. Aoun has suggested a cabinet reshuffle was on the table.