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Lebanon analysis: Now what?

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-11-22

The assassination in Beirut yesterday of a prominent leader of Lebanon's anti-Syrian Christian community, Pierre Gemayel, deepened the country's sectarian crisis, and created a new opportunity for Hezbollah to transform the secular state into an Islamic theocratic one irrevocably opposed to the existence of Israel.

The murder also triggered new concern on the part of the Bush administration about a region that has already been burdened with uncertainty over the Iraq war, Syria's bellicosity toward America and its continuing support of global terrorism, and Iran's nuclear ambitions. The administration had backed Gemayel, citing him as representative of a new breed of Lebanese politicians who sought to eliminate the malevolent influence of Syria and Iran not only in Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East.

But new breed or not, Gemayel's family history and the complex sectarian politics of Lebanon - and of the Christians in particular - shaped his sensibilities about governance, and about the future of his Mediterranean nation of four million people. Those sensibilities revolved around a simple, central point: National sovereignty and unity.

For Gemayel, a scion of Lebanon's most illustrious Maronite family, that meant, first of all, no interference in the polity by outsiders such as Syria, which has traditionally exercised hegemony in the region. It meant peace with Israel, a country with which Lebanon is still formally at war. Gemayel often said that Lebanon's puny resources were more urgently needed for economic development.

Economic growth was especially emphasized by him because Gemayel was minister of industry in the 24-member cabinet of Prime Minister Siniora, and, at 34, also the youngest member of the 128-seat unicameral parliament, known as the national assembly. Mr. Siniora had entrusted him with the task of economic reconstruction in the aftermath of the war against Israel that Hezbollah, a Shia militant group supported by neighboring Syria as well as Iran, precipitated last July.

His family history included a father - Amin - who served as Lebanon's president from 1982 to 1989, after his uncle - Bashir - was assassinated barely three weeks after being elected to the presidency. But Pierre Gemayel was perhaps most influenced by his namesake and grandfather, Pierre, the founder of Lebanon's Phalange Party. A fiery patriarch, the older Gemayel, who died of natural causes in 1984, could not countenance the venality of his country's politicians.

That venality resulted in craven acquiescence to Syria's domination of Lebanon during the civil war of 1975-1990. It also resulted in shadowy deals between Maronite factions and Lebanon's majority Shia and minority Sunni Muslims. It would be no hyperbole to suggest that those deals contributed to the rise of Hezbollah.

While Hezbollah and its patrons Syria and Iran could well have been behind yesterday's assassination, the role of Christian factions led by warlords such as Michael Aoun and Samir Geagea cannot be entirely ruled out. Neither man was particularly fond of Gemayel, even less enamored of his father Amin, and still less warm toward the patriarch, Pierre.

Both Mr. Aoun and Mr. Geagea - whose life sentence for the murder of former prime minister Rashid Karameh was commuted in July 2005 - have been known for their shifting loyalties to various outside political patrons, as well as to domestic allies. In contrast, the Gemayel clan's commitment to political stability, economic resurgence, and social progress has been noteworthy. That is not to say that the clan wasn't capable of political deal-making - at times even with Syria - but its steadfastness in putting national interests before those of preying foreigners was notable.

Of course, the Gemayels have shown themselves to be as ruthless in Lebanon's arena of hardball politics as anyone else. Their Phalanges militias massacred scores of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla south of Beirut during the Israeli invasion of 1982. Memories aren't short in the Middle East - and particularly in the Levant - and it wouldn't be too far fetched to suggest that the events of a generation ago may have also played a part in the assassination of Pierre Gemayel.

His father appealed yesterday for peace, and urged fellow Lebanese not to engage in more internecine feuding. But Amin Gemayel knows, as much as anyone else in the fractious nation that goes by the name of Lebanon, that it's one thing to call for peace, and entirely another thing for it to take hold. Peace is not in the Levant's history, nor in its current affairs, and most likely not in its future either.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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