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Pierre Gemayel Assassinated

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-11-21

The assassination in Beirut today 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 the region's stability. It had supported 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.

Gemayel, a scion of Lebanon's most illustrious Maronite family, 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.

Gemayel, the son of former president Amin Gemayel, was ambushed in the Christian suburb of Jdeidel, north of Beirut, from where he was elected to parliament last year. His car was rammed from behind by another car, from which an assassin stepped out, ran to the minister's vehicle, and shot him at point blank range. Gemayel was taken to a nearby hospital but was declared dead on arrival.

His father, Amin Gemayel - who held the presidency from 1982 to 1988 - reportedly said that Syria may have been behind the assassination. But in televised remarks, Mr. Gemayel urged Lebanese to stay calm.

The State Department denounced the assassination as "an act of terrorism," and a spokesman also said that it was another sign of an effort by Hezbollah to undermine Mr. Siniora's government.

In Washington, the under secretary of state for political affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, said that Hezbollah's public statements indicated that it intends to "destabilize and divide" Lebanon.

His sentiment echoed that of Saad Hariri, son of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was murdered in February 2005. Referring to Syria - whose hand is suspected behind the Hariri assassination - Mr. Hariri said that Syria "has always tried to annihilate the members of 14th of March." The reference was to his political group in parliament, to which Gemayel also belonged.

"One of our main believers in a free, democratic Lebanon has been killed, and we believe that the hands of Syria are all over the place," Mr. Hariri told CNN.

Today's assassination was the second in the Gemayel family. Amin Gemayel's brother, Bashir, was killed in September 1982, just three weeks after he was elected president of the country where, by tradition, the presidency is held by a Maronite Christian, the prime ministership by a Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker's post by a Shia Muslim.

The posts are allocated on the basis of a 1932 census - the last taken in Lebanon - which showed a Christian majority, with the Sunnis, Shias and Druze making up the rest of the population. However, there's general agreement that the Shias are now in a majority; but no new census has been undertaken for fear that it would crack the long fragile sectarian balance of this Mediterranean nation of 4 million people.

While Bashir Gemayel never got to formally assume the presidency, his brother was chosen for the office.

In recent weeks, Amin Gemayel and his son had increasingly spoken out against the growing role of Hezbollah in the polity. The Islamic group has long promoted Syria's active involvement in managing Lebanon's affairs. It suffered a setback when Damascus was forced to withdraw its 30,000 troops and countless intelligence personnel in the wake of international outcry over the murder of former prime minister Hariri. The murder, which is being investigated by the United Nations, was widely believed to have been plotted by pro-Syrian elements.

Hezbollah has opposed the murder investigation, and has declared that an incipient U.N. tribunal was unlikely to be unbiased; the slain minister supported the establishment of a tribunal.

Curiously enough, Hezbollah has also been trying to take a constitutional approach toward invalidating Prime Minister Siniora's ability to govern. The Lebanese constitution requires that if the cabinet loses eight members, a new government needs to be formed. Hezbollah recently withdrew its three ministers from Mr. Siniora's cabinet, and persuaded three other ministers belonging to the Shia Amal faction to also resign. Hezbollah's co-founder and leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that he no longer considered the rump cabinet to have any constitutional authority - in effect declaring that Lebanon no longer had a legitimate government.

Sheikh Nasrallah also urged his followers earlier this week to take to Beirut's streets to protest against Prime Minister Siniora. And he has decried the international peace-keeping force that the U.N. had installed as a buffer in southern Lebanon after the recent conflict with Israel. Both this force, as well as Mr. Siniora's government were "tools of the United States," Mr. Nasrallah said, as recently as last night.

Although his forces suffered heavily during the July war with Israel, and although Lebanon's infrastructure was almost completely destroyed, the sheikh has proclaimed victory. His proclamations have been endorsed by Iran - a Shia state - and also found resonance in much of the Arab world.

In addition to bolstering Hezbollah's political position in Lebanon, the assassination today of Pierre Gemayel raises the possibility of renewed sectarian conflicts between Christians and Muslims - especially if the feeling among Maronites grows that pro-Syrian sources were behind the episode. An earlier conflict, known as Lebanon great civil war, lasted from 1975 to 1990. A peace was brokered by Saudi Arabia in the Saudi resort of Taif in late 1989. Gemayel's late grandfather, also named Pierre, was the leader of the pro-Israel Phalange Party. The elder Gemayel sought Lebanon's presidency twice, but was unsuccessful. He ran the biggest Christian militia in the civil war. He died in 1984 - living long enough to see one son elected to the presidency and then killed, and then another son assume that office.

Lebanon's post-civil war economic revitalization was spearheaded by a friend of the Gemayel family, Rafik Hariri, who had made a personal fortune in the construction business in Saudi Arabia. Not surprisingly, many of the contracts during the rebuilding process were given to companies associated with Hariri, including some in Saudi Arabia.

After this year's conflict with Israel, the Saudis committed $1 billion to Lebanon's reconstruction, and the United Arab Emirates promised to match that sum. So far, however, little, if any, money has trickled in. Meanwhile, Lebanon's external debt has risen to nearly $50 billion, almost twice its gross domestic product. The unemployment rate has soared past 30%, and capital flight has accelerated.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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