Assassination of Gemayel raises stakes in political struggle in Lebanon

Developing Just Leadership

Abbas Fadl Murtada

Dhu al-Qa'dah 10, 1427 2006-12-01

Main Stories

by Abbas Fadl Murtada (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 10, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1427)

If anyone needed evidence that the deepening political crisis in Lebanon has entered an unpredictable phase, the government of Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora provided it on November 25. Siniora defied warnings from the opposition and other leading politicians and high-ranking officials, including president Emile Lahoud, and called for a cabinet meeting that approved a draft United Nations document for an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was killed in a massive truck-bomb on February 14, 2005 in Beirut. The cabinet meeting, which included the 17 anti-Syrian ministers who remain in the government after the resignation of six of their colleagues, five of whom represent the Shi’ite Hizbullah and Amal movements, two weeks ago, was denounced as illegitimate and unconstitutional by Lahoud and parliament speaker Nabih Berry, as well as others.

From a purely technical standpoint, the cabinet decision still needs the approval of Lahoud. The cabinet has already sent the draft accord to Lahoud, who is widely expected to decline to endorse it. A two-week period is set for the president to endorse cabinet decisions. Lacking the president’s consent, the decision will be returned to the cabinet which would then send it to parliament, which can only be convened by speaker Berry, who has made his opposition to the draft accord public.

Opponents of Siniora’s government have argued plausibly that the cabinet cannot on its own approve the international tribunal as such an approval amounts to negotiating an international treaty. Article 52 of Lebanon’s constitution states that: "The President of the Republic negotiates treaties in coordination with the Prime Minister. These treaties are not considered ratified except after agreement of the Council of Ministers." The opponents also maintain that the cabinet has lost its legitimacy with the resignation of the Shi’ite ministers, who representLebanon’s single largest religious community in a consociational system of government which emphasizes power-sharing and consensus-building among the different sectarian communities. But the cabinet has tuned its back on such constitutional niceties and the country’s political traditions. It has already asked the justice minister to inform the United Nations of its decision, and given him the go-ahead to coordinate with the tribunal. The cabinet’s hastiness in approving the accord has already taken a heavy toll on the country’s fragile political situation. The resignations of the six ministers were in protest over Siniora and his allies’ rush to call for a cabinet session that gave its initial approval to the agreement.

In the currently charged Lebanese political atmosphere, Siniora and the coalition backing him – known as the March 14 Alliance after a mass protest on March 14, 2005, that helped end Syria’s military presence in Lebanon – have accused Hizbullah and its allies of orchestrating the resignations to block the formation of the international court, which will also look into a string of assassinations that targeted a number of opponents of Syria. But the opposition has not objected to the notion of an international tribunal in principle. This was reiterated in a joint statement issued on November 24 in which Berry and Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah expressed once again their support for the principle of creating the tribunal, and underlined the priority they give to achieving greater representation in the cabinet. The opposition’s objections stem from serious concerns over the make-up of the judges presiding over the court and over some articles in its statute which infringe on the country’s sovereignty and violate its constitution. The opposition has been particularly indignant that the court will have a majority of non-Lebanese judges and that it will be based outside Lebanon.

Siniora has so far thumbed his nose at calls for his resignation. He has argued that the cabinet meetings held since the resignation of the six ministers are constitutional because they still managed to secure the quorum necessary to make decisions. But in the delicate communal balance in Lebanon, politics can never be subsumed under the rubric of a purely mathematical calculus. Communal harmony is a must in Lebanon’s pluralistic society without which internal peace cannot be maintained. A government that lacks representation of a constituent community of Lebanese society is not only an affront to the country’s established political traditions, but such a government also deepens feelings of exclusion and marginalization. It is such considerations that led many in Lebanon to conclude that Siniora’s cabinet has lost its legitimacy now that Shi’ite Muslims are no longer represented following the resignation ofHizbullah’s and Amal’s ministers. There is also a constitutional basis for this conclusion. Article 95 of the Lebanese constitution states that "confessional groups are to be represented in a just and equitable fashion in the formation of the Cabinet."

At a time and age when the domestic political crises plaguing countries are always enmeshed within broader political scenes, the current Lebanese predicament will inevitably affect, and be affected by, the outside patrons of the various Lebanese parties. Whereas Syria and Iran are supportive of Hizbullah and its allies, Washington and Paris have been staunch supporters of the March 14 Alliance. The United States and France see in the current crisis an opportunity to isolate Syria and Iran.

Hizbullah and its allies, who include Berry, influential Christian politicians General Michel Aoun and Sulayman Franjieh, and former Sunni prime minister ‘Umar Karami, have renewed their earlier threats to take to the streets to bring Siniora’s government down. These threats came after their demands for a national unity government, in which the opposition holds a third of the cabinet seats, were rejected as the one-third share would effectively give the opposition the power to veto key decisions. Hizbullah and its allies are expected to call for mass street protests after a 7-day mourning period for the late industry minister Pierre Gemayil.

Gemayil, a staunchly anti-Syrian politician and scion of one of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian families, was gunned down on November 21 in broad daylight while driving down a busy street in Jedaydeh, a predominantly Christian suburb to the east of Beirut. A car collided with his vehicle from behind and another car blocked his way before a gunman stepped out of one of the cars and shot him several times at point-blank range through a side window. A bodyguard of Gemayil’s also sustained fatal wounds.

Syria’s opponents in Lebanon have been quick to accuse Damascus of being behind Gemayil’s assassination. "It seems that the Syrian regime is continuing the assassinations," WalidJumblatt, the Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, told a news conference bluntly. "I expect more assassinations, but whatever they do, we are here and we will emerge victorious." Syria’s opponents have also pointed the finger at Damascus following a number of previous assassinations of high-profile anti-Syrian politicians and writers that have rocked the country since Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination. Gibran Twayni, a prominent anti-Syrian lawmaker and editor of al-Nahar newspaper, was killed in a car bomb in December 2005. Car bombings have also been responsible for the killing of journalist and activist Samir Qassir and former Communist Party leader George Hawi in June of last year. Syria has denied involvement in any of these killings all along. However, a UN preliminary investigation has suggested that Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services were behind Hariri’s killing, but has yet to reach a firm and final conclusion. But Syrian officials and others inside and outside Lebanon have argued that suggestions of Syrian involvement were inspired by a political desire to embarrass Syria.

The March 14 Alliance has tried to turn Gemayil’s funeral into a protest and a show of force in its power struggle against Hizbullah and its allies. But the huge turnout the Alliance leaders had hoped for did not materialize. The numbers they managed to mobilize were much lower than the massive numbers that came out to the streets following Hariri’s assassination in 2005. This was an indication of a decline in the March 14 Alliance’s popularity as well as weariness and fatigue on the part of its supporters. But they tried to compensate for what they lacked in numbers by a penchant for the spectacular, even if it was at the expense of social peace and inter-communal harmony. Armed with sticks, and sometimes Molotov cocktails, supporters of the March 14 Alliance attacked offices of the Free Patriotic Current, headed by Gen Aoun, as well as the predominantly Shi’ite neighbourhood of Zuqaq al-Balat in Beirut, beating up people and ripping off pictures of Nasrallah, the late Egyptian leader Jamal Abd al-Nassir and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The popularity of the anti-American Venezuelan president skyrocketed in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world when he withdrew his country’s most senior diplomat from Israel during the Zionist state’s aggression against Lebanon last summer. Some scenes from Gemayil’s funeral were utterly grotesque, as in the vulgar obscenities shouted at Nasrallah and Aoun or in the attempt to whip up raw sectarian hatreds staged by groups of youth performing mock self-flagellations to ridicule Shi’ite practices during Muharram processions.

By the time Crescent readers leaf through or scroll down the articles of this issue, it is likely that Hizbullah and its allies will have already started their threatened campaign of street protests to remove Siniora’s cabinet and for a national unity government. There is no time frame for the campaign and Hizbullah and its allies insist that they will employ peaceful means only. In a recent speech to Hizbullah activists, Nasrallah promised "victory" in the current political confrontation. Throughout his political career he has always been a man of his word.

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