Under pressure from the opposition and the street, Lebanon's pro-Syrian prime minister Omar Karameh produced a spectacular surprise with the announcement of his government's resignation despite the certainty of victory in a vote of no-confidence.
Karameh resigned on Monday in the face of mass protests, bringing to a head a political crisis sparked by the murder two weeks ago of his predecessor Rafiq Hariri.
The announcement was greeted with loud applause in the national assembly in Beirut, where the opposition had been seeking a vote of no-confidence in Karameh's four-month-old government.
The surprise resignation occurred on the first day of a general debate in parliament demanded by the opposition and devoted to the assassination.
This is the second time since 1992 that 70-year-old Karameh has been forced to resign in the face of pressure from the streets.
On the first occasion he had to step down in the teeth of public discontent over social and economic problems.
This time round what is at stake is nothing less than the future of the Syrian army presence in Lebanon.
The withdrawal of the 14,000 Syrian troops on Lebanese soil is being demanded both by the opposition and by the international community at large. The demand has become greater and greater following the death of Hariri.
"The Damascus regime has collapsed in Beirut," said one observer.
The announcement of Karameh's resignation came as a surprise not only to parliamentary deputies, but above all to the pro-Syrian speaker of parliament Nabih Berri.
Visibly shaken, he said in public: "I might at least have been told in advance."
Surprise was also palpable at the presidential palace, where President Emile Lahoud accepted the resignation, requesting Karameh to expedite unfinished business.
Interior Minister Soleiman Frangie was prompted to remark that he felt glad about stepping down, "because we've shown we're democrats."
Only a few days previously Karameh had made his departure conditional on an alternative government being ready to take over to avoid a constitutional void.
The opposition last week called for a transitional government to prepare spring parliamentary elections and supervise the Syrian withdrawal. The elections must take place before the end of May, according to the constitution.
The opposition also called for continuing rallies on Martyrs' Square in Beirut pending the dismissal of security officials and the Syrian withdrawal.
Karameh justified his government's resignation on the grounds of considerations of moral order.
He said he did not wish to be an obstacle to what was considered by some to be the country's welfare, an allusion to street demonstrations and opposition anger over Hariri's death.
He said he had also ceded to the wishes of Hariri's sister, parliamentary deputy Bahia Hariri, who had called for the government's resignation as a matter of priority.
Karameh said he was submitting his resignation despite the assurance of surviving a vote of no-confidence.
Following applause in the assembly, the vast crowd outside on Martyrs' Square, now unofficially renamed Liberty Square, chanted exultantly: "Your turn will come Lahoud, yours too Bashar," a reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria has not clearly announced its intentions yet, although both the US and the UN have urged it to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
"Technically we can withdraw our troops before the end of the year," Assad said in an interview Monday with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "Strategically, that will happen only if we obtain serious guarantees. In other words -- peace."
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