BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of supporters of a Lebanese Christian politician protested in Beirut on Thursday against the Sunni prime minister they say is marginalizing Christian influence, stirring tensions in a country already in crisis over war in neighboring Syria.
Michel Aoun accuses Prime Minister Tammam Salam of taking decisions without cross-party consensus and usurping powers reserved for the president - a post set aside for a Christian but vacant since last year due to the wider political turmoil.
Aoun’s critics, including other Christian leaders, say his motivation is personal. A presidential hopeful, he wants his son-in-law, Brigadier-General Shamel Roukoz, appointed as army chief when the job needs filling in September.
“We are more than Shi‘ites and we are more than Sunnis and we want our rights,” Aoun said in televised remarks, in which he vowed not to back down.
Statistics on the proportion of the population of each sect are sensitive in Lebanon where balance and consensus have kept the country relatively stable since the 1975-1990 civil war. Under the system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shi‘ite.
The U.S. State Department website cites statistics from a Lebanese research firm that estimate around 40 percent of Lebanese are Christians of various denominations, 27 percent are Sunni Muslims and 27 percent Shi‘ite.
Aoun, 80, is an ally of Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese Shi‘ite group backed by Iran that is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Hezbollah has said it backs Aoun’s political position, but is not taking part in the rally.
Supporters of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement waved orange flags and made their way towards the government headquarters in central Beirut, where Salam was holding a cabinet meeting.
”They are taking everything from us,“ said student Charbel Khoury, 21. As Christians we should act, we should not stay at home. We are only a small number in the region.”
The protests appeared largely calm, but at one point a group of people broke through an army barrier and injured seven military personnel, the army said.
“You cannot strongly impose (your will) on the people using the option of the street,” Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said in comments published in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
“It is not good for the country, it is not good for Christians, especially for those who are, after all, the economic backbone of the country,” he said.
All of the main parties, including the Saudi-backed Future Movement of Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, are represented in the Salam cabinet, which was formed last year after the country spent 10 months without a government.
The government’s existence has spared a complete vacuum in the executive arm, helping shield it from further fall-out from the Syrian war that has driven more than 1 million refugees into Lebanon.
While rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran has helped to fuel conflict in the region, their allies in Lebanon have sought to ease tensions with regular talks.
Editing by Tom Perry and Alison Williams