Sunday, November 26, 2006


Showdown time in Lebanon
By Kim Ghattas BBC News, Beirut.

Factories, banks and many shops in Lebanon have remained closed as a mark of protest at the killing of the industry minister, Pierre Gemayel. The two-day strike has been called by business leaders amid fears that the political crisis in Lebanon could throw the country into turmoil.
The line of people in black is interminable. For hours on end, since Tuesday, they have been filing past the relatives of Pierre Gemayel to pay their condolences at the family home.

Has Lebanon reached a point of no return?Some of them are crying while others approached the family to talk or to offer them poems they had written.
Mr Gemayel was the fourth opponent of the Syrian government to be killed since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year.
The attack on Mr Gemayel's motorcade was a brazen one. It came in broad daylight and the killers got away.
The day after, one of Mr Gemayel's cabinet colleagues came to the BBC television studio and, for the first time, she was surrounded by bodyguards.
Standing next to her was slightly nerve-wracking.
People here are frightened; several cabinet ministers have now moved into the well-fortified prime minister's offices just down the road.
Foreboding atmosphere
Mr Gemayel's killing was not a total surprise though.
For weeks now, politicians have been trading all sorts of accusations and one journalist told the BBC the atmosphere was similar to that which preceded the death of Mr Hariri.


Feb 2005: Former PM Rafik Hariri
June 2005: Anti-Syria journalist Samir Kassir
June 2005: Ex-Communist leader George Hawi
Dec 2005: Anti-Syria MP Gebran Tueni
Nov 2006: Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel

Mr Gemayel only began his political career six years ago.
The Christian politician was the youngest minister and legislator and not particularly high profile even if his family is a well-known one here: his grandfather founded the Christian right-wing Phalange party, in 1937, modelling it on the Nazi youth movement.
And the group's military wing was one of the most powerful militias during the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.
One person whose family suffered at the hands of the Phalangists told the BBC it was sad to see several hundred thousand people turn up on Thursday to mourn a man whose family is associated with some of the worst violence in Lebanese history.
But many of the country's political leaders have a tainted past. Others are sons, or widows, or sisters of politicians; the same people have held power for decades.
One young Christian girl at the funeral, waving her white, red and green Lebanese flag, told the BBC though that she felt her country was changing: she pointed out that all around her, Christians and Muslims had come together to pay their respects to a Maronite Christian.
Political divide
So the divide now seems not so much sectarian, but a question of politics: supporters of Syria, a country which has long wielded influence in Lebanon, against its opponents, with Christians and Muslims on both sides.
But religious sensitivities are still easy to exploit here and whoever killed Mr Gemayel may have hoped it would provoke the Christian community.
At the site of the assassination on Wednesday evening, there was a group of seething women, wearing large crucifixes.
One of them was screaming: "They're killing us in our neighbourhoods, they have no shame, I will kill them myself if I have to."
In the past, assassinations have often led to bloody reprisals.
After the funeral, Shia Muslims from the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement briefly took to the streets and blocked roads.
They said they were angry because some mourners had accused Hezbollah of being involved in the killing.
High stakes
I was in Damascus on Tuesday when news of the murder reached me by text message from Beirut.
I was in the middle of an interview with a political analyst who rather presciently had just been sharing his fears about the situation in neighbouring Lebanon.
It feels like showdown time in Lebanon - winner takes all
The next few days would be dangerous, he said.
The Syrians were furious about the international tribunal being set up to try the suspects in the murder of Rafik Hariri, he added.
A UN investigation into that murder has already pointed the finger at Syria.
The country's leadership wanted to stop the tribunal at all costs, the analyst added.
His view was that Damascus was trying to convince the world that it was helping the United States by making overtures towards Iraq.
This, he said, would distract international attention from the fact that Syria was really engaged in bringing down the pro-Western government in Beirut.
And just a couple of hours before that, another figure close to the Syrian leadership, told me that in the last few days, the leaders of the ruling Syrian Baath Party had decided that in return for helping the Americans in the Middle East, Syria would ask for what he described as "the jackpot".
This is not only the return of the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since 1967, but also a clear timetable for an American withdrawal from Iraq and an end to the work of that UN investigation into the Hariri killing.
So who did it? Was it the Syrians? Or the Americans, the Israelis, al-Qaeda, political rivals, disgruntled businessmen?
Who knows?
But as I drove back into Beirut from Damascus that evening, with tyres burning at street corners and the army deploying troops with armoured personnel carriers, I felt that the killing may have crystallised the divisions between the rival camps to a point of no return.
It feels like showdown time in Lebanon - winner takes all.
And the Lebanese can only hope that the final battle will be a political one.



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