Crisis looms after assassination of minister

[Lebanon] The car in which Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon's Industry Minister, was assassinated. [Date picture taken: 11/22/2006]
The car in which Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon's Industry Minister, was assassinated. (Marie Claire Feghali/IRIN)

Lebanese analysts said Tuesday’s assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the Industry Minister, drove another nail into the coffin of the country's frail democracy. Gemayel, a scion of a prominent Maronite Christian family which heads the Phalange political party, was a member of the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.

"I don't feel any real democracy here," said Imad Ajami, a Beirut-based political analyst. "People are blindly following their particular sectarian leader, rather than working for the good of Lebanon."

Gemayel was shot dead in broad daylight while driving his car in a Christian area of Beirut.

Ajami said the timing of the assassination, coming after leaked reports that the Lebanese Cabinet was on the brink of resolving a crisis sparked by the resignation of six Hezbollah and allied ministers, was a clear indication of forces at work in Lebanon who want to head off a political solution to the country's crisis.

"Someone is pushing for the deterioration of the situation," he said. "Everyone is afraid and people's priority now is their own security."

Michael Young, Opinion Editor on the Daily Star, a leading national newspaper, said that the Lebanese government was one minister closer to collapsing constitutionally. “The assassination has made the government more vulnerable but it will also create a backlash against the other side. There are some players in Lebanon whose decision-making is not Lebanese and that is causing the problem,” he said.

Gemayel’s assassination has provoked street protests, which many fear could turn violent. During Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) between Christians and Muslims, the anti-Syrian Phalange had the largest militia and sided with Israel.

Syria, which occupied Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, was quick to reject accusations by Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority of involvement in Gemayel's assassination - an act that threatened to again isolate Damascus even as it appeared on the brink of re-engaging the international community.

Despicable crime

Syria denounced the killing as a "despicable crime", while Saad Hariri - leader of Lebanon's anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, of which Gemayel was a member - blamed the "assassin regime" of Damascus for the death of a man he described as "a brother".

Opponents of Syria in Lebanon have accused Damascus of being behind previous assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.

Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, rejected accusations by Hariri that Damascus was destabilising Lebanon and fuelling the violence in Iraq.

"We are part of the solution, not part of the problem," he said. "And that goes against all those who are trying to say exactly the opposite; those who are trying to point the finger against Syrian policies. Syrian policies are positive in the region."

Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, said he was “shocked” to learn of the assassination of Gemayel, who he said believed strongly in an independent, democratic and united Lebanon.

Damascus-based analysts said the timing of the assassination could only lead to further instability in Lebanon and across the region. Earlier that day, 21 November, Syria restored diplomatic ties with Iraq and the UN Security Council approved plans for an international tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The UN inquiry has already implicated senior Syrian security officials, an accusation Damascus denies.

"The assassination [of Gemayel] can only destabilise Lebanon's government and the region," said Jihad Yazigi, editor of The Syria Report, an independent Paris-based fortnightly newsletter. "It came at a very bad moment for Lebanon with Hezbollah threatening to bring down the government and as the UN text of the Hariri tribunal is due to come back to Beirut to be ratified by the Cabinet."

Syria would also feel the negative consequences of Gemayel's death, said Yazigi, who argued against accusations of Syrian involvement in the killing.

"Damascus has nothing to gain by the death of Gemayel," he said. "Damascus has the upper hand in Lebanon now after nearly a year without any assassinations and Hezbollah are getting stronger by the day."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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