Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Lebanon's dance of blood

A Lebanese government minister was assassinated yesterday near Beirut. The Christian cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was shot dead as his convoy drove through a Christian neighbourhood. Gunmen opened fire on his car, riddling it with bullets. The 34 year old Gemayel was rushed to hospital but died later of multiple gunshot wounds. The death of this strongly anti-Syrian minister will further inflame political tensions in this tinderbox country. Parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri, son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, blamed Damascus for the killing saying, "we believe the hand of Syria is all over the place,” he said.

Gemayel comes from a Christian Maronite family steeped in Lebanese politics. He was named for his grandfather Pierre Gemayel who founded Christian Kataeb (Phalange) Party, initially as a youth movement, in 1936. Gemayel the Younger’s father was former president Amin Gemayel. His uncle Bashir Gemayel was also elected president but was killed in 1982 after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Pierre was also a member of the Phalangists and industry minister in the current administration. He is the third anti-Syrian political figure to be assassinated since Al-Hariri's killing in February 2005.

The pro-Damascus opposition is led by Hezbollah, which is determined to topple what it sees as a pro-US government. Hezbollah and its allies are preparing for street demonstrations to topple the government of Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora which they accuse of being US allies. They also arguing that it has lost its legitimacy since Shi'ite Muslims are no longer represented. Six pro-Syrian ministers (two of which are Hezbollah appointees) have resigned in the last two weeks after the cabinet approved a UN statute for a tribunal to investigate the death of Rafik al-Hariri. Al-Hariri died in a suicide truck bombing in 2005 and the UN implicated senior Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the incident. Hezbollah have now released a statement denouncing the murder of Gemayel. They also called for calm, warning the population not to jump to conclusions.

Ultimately however, this is most likely the latest step in a Syrian effort to derail the international tribunal. It started with the mass resignations from the government. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Nasrallah called on his followers to take to the streets to precipitate the fall of the government. The ultimate aim is to demand enough ministerial portfolios to be able to hold a collective veto against cabinet decisions they don’t agree with. Michael Young, writing in The Washington Post believes Syrian President Assad is behind the Gemayel killing in order to undermine the complex tribunal set-up process. And in the complicated web of Lebanese politics, the killing may also undermine the Christian politician Michel Aoun who has attempted to seek Muslim support with his advocacy of secular politics. Lebanon’s fragile peace is dependent on a sectarian governmental structure, where the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shi'a Muslim.

That balance was disturbed when Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Shi’te Hezbollah in February this year. The MOU had a 10-point plan that called for dialogue, consensual democracy, modern electoral law, combating corruption, uncovering the fate of those missing in action in Lebanon’s wars, returning Lebanese citizens from Israel, security reforms, sound relations with Syria, asserting the independence of Palestine, and the protection of Lebanon’s sovereignty. Although Aoun was feted by the Bush administration when he visited Washington last year, the MOU with Hezbollah has raised serious concerns in the US and Israel. The agreement was one reason why Israel attacked Lebanese Christian targets during the six-week incursion earlier this year. Aoun has also officially denounced the Gemayel killing.

Lebanese Sunni Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani also denounced the assassination of Gemayel. He is the spiritual leader of over 600,000 Lebanese which is 15-20% of the total population (this is an estimate as Lebanon has had no official census since 1932, due to the country’s extraordinary religious sensitivity). The majority of Sunnis are urban based and are less focussed on their religion as a political identifier. The main Sunni party Al-Murabitun (“the Sentinels”) is seen as pro-Syrian. However Qabbani denounced the killing saying, "the assassination of Pierre Gemayel amid circumstances of tension and defiance currently being observed in the country was a severe blow to all those who wished that the situations could not reach to this extent."

The other group represented in the Lebanese political hegemony are the Druze. The Druze are a small and secretive religious offshoot from Ismaili Islam that was started in the 10th century. They are also influenced by Greek philosophy and Christianity. Though they regard themselves to be part of Islam, this view is not shared by other Muslims as Druze do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam. The Druze are represented politically by the Progressive Socialist Party led by Walid Jumblatt. The BBC described Jumblatt as Lebanon’s weathervane. He has constantly switched allegiances but has always ended up on the winning side. Since 2000 he has campaigned for Syria to relinquish control. Many suspect even the weathervane may be another target for Syrian-controlled assassins. Despite the threat, Jumblatt went to the hospital where Gemayel was taken after he was gunned down and called 'for calm and respect the memory of the martyr.' He also shot a warning across Syria’s bows: 'the international court is coming without a doubt.'

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