BEIRUT // The Hizbollah-backed candidate, Najib Miqati, was named prime minister of Lebanon yesterday, triggering a "day of rage" by supporters of the deposed PM, Saad Hariri.
The president, Michel Suleiman, asked Mr Miqati to form a government after the billionaire Sunni tycoon won the support of 68 of Lebanon's 128 members of parliament. The appointment shifts the balance of power in Lebanon towards Syria and Iran and away from the Hariri-led and western-allied bloc that has headed the government for nearly six years.
After he was named prime minister, Mr Miqati, a centrist politician with ties to both Saudi Arabia and Syria, appealed for unity. "My hand is extended to all factions to take part and end division … through dialogue," he said after his nomination.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, also urged Lebanese to pull together. "We have supported the nomination of … Miqati and we call on him to form a national partnership government. The Lebanese have a chance to close ranks," he told thousands of supporters.
The assurances by Mr Miqati and Mr Nasrallah that the new government would be broad-based did not allay the worries of many Lebanese and some outside powers.
France's foreign ministry said it was "essential" that Mr Miqati form a government without outside "interference". Jeffrey Feltman, the US State Department's top Middle East envoy and a former ambassador to Lebanon, said he would travel to Paris for talks today on the situation in both Lebanon and Tunisia.
Hizbollah and its allies toppled Mr Hariri's national unity government on January 12, when they resigned from the cabinet after the failure of a Syrian-Saudi effort to bridge a rift over a United Nations tribunal set up to try the killers of Mr Hariri's father, the prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Hizbollah, which fears its members will be indicted for the murder, wanted Mr Hariri to withdraw Lebanon's support for the tribunal, a demand he refused.
In Lebanon's confessional system of government, the position of prime minister is reserved for a Sunni. That a Sunni candidate put forward by the Shiite Hizbollah has supplanted Mr Hariri has galled many of Lebanon's Sunnis.
Mr Hariri urged his supporters to remain calm, saying anger "should not lead us to what disagrees with our values … our belief that democracy is our refuge".
Despite Mr Miqati's appeal, they demonstrated their anger after his appointment, burning tyres and rubbish skips at one road junction in the Mazraa district of Beirut as Lebanese army soldiers and tanks struggled to keep the roads clear of flaming barricades - only to see them rebuilt within minutes by the crowd, who yelled curses at Mr Nasrallah and Hizbollah.
Demonstrations and riots broke out in Sunni areas across the capital and in Sunni strongholds of Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south. Protesters waved placards reading "Miqati, you are not one of us. Leave and go away", and "Hizbollah, party of the devil".
Two people were wounded in riots in the capital and one in Tripoli, where a crowd also attacked and wrecked an Al Jazeera television satellite broadcast vehicle.
Later in Beirut, hundreds of Hariri supporters gathered at Rafiq Hariri's mausoleum in Martyr's Square, waving Lebanese flags and holding signs calling for the return of Saad Hariri to the post of prime minister.
"I am here to save what we achieved in 2005," said Joe Azzi, 24, in a reference to the popular outcry, called the Cedar Revolution, that followed the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and led to Syria withdrawing its troops from Lebanon after almost three decades in the country.
"We have to go back to the streets to renew our revolution and prove to Lebanon and the world that we want out country free from Syria and Iran," Mr Azzi said.
In his speech earlier yesterday, Mr Nasrallah rejected accusations that his Shiite militant party wanted to "control the country" and "impose the Persian project" - an allusion to Hizbollah's support from Iran.
Nevertheless, politicians allied with Mr Hariri's March 14 coalition described Hizbollah's toppling of his government as a "coup", although it was accomplished legally and constitutionally.
Mohammad Kabbara, a member of parliament, said yesterday: "This aggression against the Sunni confession and the nation is unacceptable."
The next step, forming a new government, is crucial and, some analysts say, nearly impossible, given the current divisions that are deepening in the country.
Mr Hariri has said that he and his March 14 coalition will not participate in the new government, and if Hizbollah and its allies decide to go ahead and form a government without Mr Hariri's co-operation it risks international isolation and almost certain internal conflict. The president, who has the ultimate say, is unlikely to give his backing to such a government.
The other route is to reform a power-sharing government of national unity, much like the one that was toppled on January 12, only this time led by a Hizbollah-dominated majority. Analysts say finding political consensus across the widening divides so as to form a unity government is highly unlikely in the current climate.
Elias Hanna, a retired army general and professor of political science at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, said: "There will never be national unity in Lebanon at this time. The main issue that decides the Lebanese now is the tribunal.
"One cannot force a prime minister on a Sunni majority right now, because the stakes are so high. If you want to go into a national unity government, you have to have the Sunnis going into it agreeing with you," he said.
Mr Miqati, tall, clean-cut and composed, was born on November 24, 1955. He is a graduate of the American University of Beirut's business school and also studied at Harvard University.
He emerged as a leader in the wake of Rafiq Hariri's murder, when he headed a three-month interim government in 2005 during the worst political turmoil to grip Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war.
He owns the M1 Group, an international investment holding group with shares in South Africa's telecom MTN Group and the French fashion label Faconnable, and has interests in property, oil and gas and other industries.
Forbes magazine in 2010 estimated his net worth at $2.5 billion (Dh9.1bn), making him one of Lebanon's richest men. He is ranked 374= on the Forbes list of billionaires, with his brother and business partner Taha.
* With additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse