Supporters of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri burn tires during a… (Wael Hamzeh, EPA )
Reporting from Beirut — Lebanon's long-standing political crisis deepened Monday when supporters of the country's Sunni Muslim leadership called for protests over the apparently imminent appointment of a Hezbollah-backed candidate as the prime minister of a new government.
Supporters of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri vowed to take to the streets Tuesday in a "day of popular anger" in response to the announcement that a bloc headed by Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, would back businessman Najib Mikati for the premier's post. On Monday night, the Lebanese army rushed to extinguish piles of burning tires and open blocked roads in Sunni areas where limited protests erupted.
The threat of possible street clashes is the latest development in the crisis over a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri's father.
Lebanon's political system requires the prime minister to be a Sunni, a qualification Mikati, a Tripoli telecommunications mogul who held the post in 2005, meets. But the prospect of a Hezbollah-led coalition naming the premier has exacerbated already tense ties between the country's two main Muslim sects.
Hezbollah led a Cabinet walkout this month that caused the government to collapse after Hariri refused to cut ties with the U.N. tribunal, which is currently weighing indictments thought to name members of the Iranian-backed group.
Hariri, who enjoys the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia, swore to seek the prime minister's post despite his rejection by the Hezbollah bloc and the recent defection of a key ally, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Mikati, who announced his candidacy Sunday night, appears to have the votes to win confirmation Tuesday. A former ally of Hariri, he served as prime minister for three months soon after the massive car bombing attack that killed Rafik Hariri and 22 others.
Saad Hariri, like his father, has worked hard and spent untold sums to shore up support in the Lebanese Sunni community, but analysts say he may have been outmaneuvered.
"Saad Hariri is stronger of course in the Sunni community, but regarding the consultations there were agreements made with Jumblatt and others for Mikati to be prime minister," said Talal Atrissi, a political science professor at Lebanese University. "Mikati is strong economically, he doesn't need Hariri's money, and he has regional connections. He has already been accepted by Syria, Qatar and France, and I think this will help him."
Karim Makdisi, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, described Mikati as a businessman who has maintained good relations with all sides and avoided controversial positions that might harm his business interests.
"He bills himself as a centrist and he plays that up as his main credential, and that is probably true; in Lebanese terms, he doesn't take an ideological position," Makdisi said.
Hariri issued a statement Monday saying his Future Movement would refuse to take part in any government formed under a prime minister chosen by Hezbollah and its allies.
"This is the rhetoric and the language and the tension that was felt so acutely in 2005, 2006, 2007," said Makdisi, referring to the lengthy crisis that led to major clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in 2008.
Lutz is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.