Fractured nation

Published : Dec 15, 2006 00:00 IST

Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel's funeral exposes Lebanon's deep political, religious and sectarian fault lines.


ON the sunlit afternoon of November 23, massive crowds gathered at Beirut's Martyrs' Square for a rally, close to St. George's Cathedral where the funeral ceremony was being held for Lebanon's assassinated Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel.

The atmosphere was politically charged and the crowds were restive. They had come following a call by Saad Hariri, whose father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was also assassinated, to turn the funeral into an expression of "freedom and independence". Hariri, a Sunni, is the leader of the March 14 Forces, a pro-American coalition having wide support among Lebanon's Sunnis and a section of the Christian and Druze communities. It played a leading role in the "Cedar Revolution", which led to the exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005.

At Martyrs' Square, many in the gathering stamped on portraits of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and his Syrian and Iranian counterparts, Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hardly perceptible in the sea of humanity was the presence of Shias, Lebanon's single largest community. The Lebanese militant group Hizbollah enjoys massive support among Shias. It is also backed by Syria and Iran. Gemayel's funeral, therefore, exposed Lebanon's deep political, religious and sectarian fault lines and its growing internal polarisation.

Gemayel was killed on November 21 when a vehicle rammed into his car, and gunmen then emerged and sprayed his stranded vehicle with bullets. Gemayel was shot in the head and chest, and he died on the way to the nearby St. Joseph's Hospital.

Gemayel's murder stirred strong emotions as he belonged to Lebanon's most well-known family of Maronite Christians. He was a member of the right-wing Phalange party. It played a leading role in Lebanon's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. His father, Amin Gemayel, is a former President. His uncle Bashir Gemayel was instrumental in unifying a string of militia groups, which were active during the civil war. An explosion in the Phalange party headquarters killed Bashir Gemayel and 25 others on September 14, 1982, less than a month after he was elected President. Two days later, Phalange militias entered the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and carried out a horrendous massacre, apparently to avenge his death.

Pierre Gemayel's assassination has taken place in a larger political context shaped by regional and extra-regional players including Israel, the United States, Syria and Iran.

For decades, Israel and Syria have been at loggerheads and their animosity has been symbolised by the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Israel occupied Golan during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In recent years, the hostility between Israel and Syria has acquired a sharper edge because Syria has sheltered key Palestinian leaders such as Khaled Meshal on its soil. Meshal is the public face and chief diplomat of Hamas, which insists on not recognising Israel.

Besides, Syria consolidated its hold over Lebanon, Israel's northern neighbour, following Israeli withdrawal from the country in 2000. One of the key factors that have embittered relations between Israel and Syria was the cementing of ties between Damascus and Teheran in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. Syria backed Iran against the government of now deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during that war, forging an alliance between the two countries that has continued to prosper. After a gap of 26 years, Syria restored diplomatic ties with Iraq on November 21, signalling that a new chapter was being opened and that it was ready for a bigger role in regional diplomacy involving Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Israel and its chief ally, the U.S., have been alarmed by the Syria-Iran alliance, which acquired power and influence in Lebanon through Hizbollah. Hizbollah came into prominence when it killed 63 persons, including 17 Americans, in an attack on the American embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983. In October that year, a Hizbollah truck packed with 12,000 pounds (5,450 kg) of TNT rammed into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. Hizbollah has continued to grow ever since. The organisation played a decisive role in bringing to an end in 2000 the 18-yearIsraeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Israel and the U.S. seized the opportunity to weaken the Hizbollah-Syria-Iran alliance following the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Syria was blamed for the killing on the grounds that Hariri opposed Syrian domination of Lebanon, after Damascus insisted on extending the presidential term of it protg Lahoud. Hariri's death was followed by a wave of anti-Syrian protests steered by the March 14 Forces. In the wake of the surging demonstrations in Beirut, Syrian troops departed from Lebanon in April 2005, ending their 29-year presence in the country. Their departure marked a major victory for the March 14 Forces. It led to the emergence of a pro-U.S. government in Beirut, though the Hizbollah and its allies did manage to secure 35 seats in the 128-member Parliament. Despite efforts to marginalise Syria, Hizbollah has continued to demonstrate support for Damascus. In March 2005, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed a pro-Syrian rally, with numbers that matched the turnout mustered by supporters of the March 14 Forces.

Amid bitter international rivalry for influence in Lebanon, Hizbollah strongly asserted itself in July 2006. Its capture of two Israeli soldiers triggered a 34-day war with Israel. Hizbollah's effective resistance to the Israeli invasion and bombing of southern Lebanon and south Beirut led to a surge in its popularity. With its credibility enhanced after the war, Hizbollah mounted a political attack on the Lebanese government and the March 14 Forces. It called for a national unity government, implying that the Shias should be better represented in a new dispensation. But with talks for changing the representational character of the government failing, Hizbollah and its ally Amal, another Shia organisation, pulled out their six Ministers from the government and called for mass demonstrations.

It is now apparent that the March 14 Forces have shrewdly turned Gemayel's assassination into a political event to stage a comeback and marginalise Hizbollah and its supporters Syria and Iran.

While the partisan crowds at Martyrs' Square declared Syria guilty, the jury is still out on who is responsible for Gemayel's assassination. Those who blame Syria argue that by killing Gemayel Damascus wanted to pre-empt the formation of a special tribunal that would bring Rafik Hariri's killers to justice. The United Nations has already finalised plans to set up the tribunal. However, it can be established only with the approval of the Lebanese government and with the concurrence of President Lahoud. Syria therefore, the argument goes, has an interest in derailing the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, as this would doom the establishment of the tribunal. With the departure of the six Hizbollah-allied Ministers and with Gemayel's assassination, the death or resignation of two more Cabinet Ministers can bring down the government.

In an article that appeared in the Dubai daily Gulf News, veteran journalist Patrick Seale argued: " There is an alternative theory, which is equally plausible, in which the more likely culprits are Israel and its local agents." He points out that neither Syria nor Hizbollah will benefit from the crime. The assassination took place when Syria was about to resume its engagement with Europe and the U.S.. "In these circumstances, it seems hardly likely that Syria - eagerly seeking dialogue with the West, emerging from isolation, and pressing hard for the U.S. to relaunch the Middle East process - would put all this in jeopardy by ordering a squalid murder of a relatively unimportant Lebanese politician."

Similarly, Hizbollah, which witnessed a meteoric rise in popularity following the 34-day war, has been hurt by the assassination. It has been pushed on the defensive and will have to reconsider its plans for street demonstrations to press for the formation of a national unity government.

With Lebanon's society and political class experiencing extreme stress after Gemayel's assassination, it is going to take a herculean effort to prevent the country from sliding yet again into a cycle of violence and chaos.

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