Friday at 3 p.m. is the “Zero Hour”

Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has announced that Friday at 3 p.m. (conveniently after Friday prayers) would be the “zero hour” that his supporters and political allies would take to the streets to force the resignation of the current Lebanese government. This will be a defining moment in the modern history of the Middle East.

BEIRUT — Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has announced that Friday at 3 p.m. (conveniently after Friday prayers) would be the “zero hour” that his supporters and political allies would take to the streets to force the resignation of the current Lebanese government.

The so-called March 8 movement, which takes its name from the massive March 8, 2005 demonstration that was to “thank” Syria for its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, is dominated by Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militant group that fought Israel to a standstill the summer. Because of its “divine victory,” as Hezbollah called it, and what Nasrallah says was insufficient fealty to the group’s war on the part of Fuad Siniora and the Lebanese government, Hezbollah, Amal and the largely Christian Free Patriotic Movement were demanding veto power in the cabinet. (It’s widely assumed that the March 8 movement, which is supportive of Syria, is trying to derail the U.N. tribunal set up to try suspects in the case of the murder of ex-premier Rafik Hariri, in which Syria is suspected. Veto power in the cabinet would grant them this power.)

They didn’t get the expanded number of seats in the cabinet, as there’s already been an election and there won’t be another one for parliament until 2009, so now they’re taking to the streets to topple the government, which they say is exercising their “democratic rights.”

It seems March 8 has a funny idea of democracy.
Continue reading “Friday at 3 p.m. is the “Zero Hour””

Ready to Blow

BEIRUT — After today’s “funeral for Pierre Gemayel”:, Lebanon is ready to blow.
Tonight, about 1,000 Shi’ite youths gathered along airport road and began protesting what they said were the insults made against Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah at the funeral this afternoon. (Saad Hariri more or less said the majority claimed by Hezbollah and others in the March 8 movement was a mirage.)
Soon, a crowd of Sunni youths gathered nearby, prompting a large response from the Lebanese security forces. Local Hezbollah officials told the Shi’ite crowd to go home, but they were ignored, prompting Nasrallah to call Manar TV, the group’s television channel, and issue a call for the crowd to disperse. That, too, initially seemed to be ignored, and it is only after several hours that the protestors drifted home.
In another worrisome development, in a Palestinian camp in the north of the country (I haven’t pinned down the name yet), camp residents clashed with Sunni extremists loyal to Jund al-Sham, a group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
And finally, former Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa has withdrawn his resignation, meaning Ahmad Fatfat is no longer _acting_ interior minister. This is important because it increases the numbr of people in the Siniora cabinet who are full-fledged ministers. The cabinet is normally made up of 24 ministers, with 16 needed for a quorum. Last weekend, five Shi’ite ministers and a pro-Syrian Christian minister resigned, threatening the stability of the government. Then Pierre Gemayel was killed, bringing the number of absent ministers to seven. If two more ministerial seats became vacant, Siniora’s government would be automatically dissolved.
Since Fatfat was only an acting minister, there might be some legal justification to dissolve the government if only one more minister was removed. So by bringing Sabaa back, the March 14 forces are solidfying their position and hunkering down for a long fight.

Mourning in Beirut

BEIRUT — They came by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, to central Beirut, just as they had done 20 months ago, to mark the killing of another politician opposed to Syria’s yoke on Lebanon.

Today it was for Pierre Gemayel, the young Christian minister of industry in Lebanon’s besieged anti-Syrian government. On Tuesday, three gunmen ambushed him and sprayed his car with bullets mid-afternoon in a Christian neighborhood, killing him and further plunging the country into political crisis.

But in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut, today was a day of defiance for the mostly young, mostly Christian masses who came down to stand up to Syria, they say.

“We come for the sake of Lebanon,” said Khaidon Issa, 55, from the Christian neighborhood of Achrifiye in east Beirut. “Martyr after martyr, where is this going to end?”

Opponents of Syria's President Bashir Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally, vent their rage on the images of the men.
Opponents of Syria’s President Bashir Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian ally, vent their rage on the images of the men.

Gemayel is the fifth assassination of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed Feb. 14, 2005 in a massive car bomb near downtown Beirut that also killed 22 others. The protests that followed on March 14 were massive — by some accounts, one-fourth of Lebanon came to Beirut that day — and prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. Since then, there have been 15 car bombs and other violence, most of which has been blamed on Damascus in its attempt to destabilize Lebanon and regain control over its smaller neighbor.

“I think March 14 was a historic day for the world,” said Naim Boushahine, 21, a hairdresser from Hammana and a supporter of the Druze party, the Progressive Socialist Party. “Because of that day, God willing, Lebanon will achieve its full independence.”

While hundreds of soldiers and riot police surrounded the square, people pounded drums, waved thousands of Lebanese flags — alongside those of their respective political parties — and giant loudspeakers played former speeches of Gemayel, who once said he was prepared to die for Lebanon’s freedom.

His voice boomed forth: “There are people who are planning every moment to overthrow the government.” It was a poignant statement; many believe Gemayel was killed to reduce the anti-Syrian cabinet to fewer than 16 members. If that happens, and there are only two ministers standing against that fate, the government will fall.

But among the crowd, rather than letting Syria and its Lebanese allies — Hezbollah, Michel Aoun and President Emile Lahoud — topple the elected government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, some were planning their own revolution.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we’re going to Baabda,” said Boushahine, referring to the presidential palace and home to the staunchly pro-Syrian Lahoud. “We’re going to liberate the palace from the cockroach that lives there.”

Others were less direct, but in agreement.

“We hope that Lahoud resigns today,” said Tariq Najjar, 22, from a town called Abadieh. “We hope that today that Lahoud hears our voices and (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) know that we are the majority of Lebanese people.”

As the square began to fill up, the red and white Lebanese flags contrasted sharply with the deep, azure blue of the sky. Young men and women held up signs of Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, emblazoned with the words, “Shove Your Civil War,” a rejection of the assumed plot by Damascus to foment civil war in Lebanon in order to take control of it again. Some burned posters of Lahoud and Assad.

At 1 p.m., Gemayel’s body was brought to the Maronite St. George Cathedral in downtown Beirut, while thousands of Lebanese stood outside. Osman Hamze, 20, a student of computer science in the heavily Sunni town of Tripoli, said he had come down to stand for “the truth” about all the killings done in Lebanon since that fiery February day, 20 months ago.

And after that?

“Tomorrow is a normal day,” he said. “But we won’t forget our killers.”

The Birthplace of Civil War

AIN EL-RUMMANE, Lebanon — It’s an odd place to start a war.

Ain el-Rummane, a Christian neighborhood in the hills above Beirut occupies an ominous place in Lebanese history. It was here, in 1975, near a statue of the Virgin, that a bus full of Palestinian refugees was ambushed by Christian militiamen. It was a massacre in response to an assassination attempt, and the reprisals it generated in turn quickly grew into the Lebanese civil war.

And now this residential neighborhood may provide some of the soldiers to fight in a new one. Members of the Lebanese Forces, the same militia that killed the Palestinians in 1975, still claim Ain el-Rummane as home and they simmered Wednesday, the day after the grandson of the founder of their political party was killed by assassins on a busy Beirut street in mid-afternoon.

“One more mistake and we will take the streets with our hands,” said Arz Wehbe, 27, a member of the militia. “There are no weapons out now, but when it becomes serious, we will take weapons from under the ground.”

The assassination of the 34-year-old Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon’s minister of industry, on Tuesday was the latest, most ominous development in Lebanon’s latest, most ominous political crisis that began in February 2005 with the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Since then, Lebanon has seen five assassinations, 15 bombings, a vicious war between Hezbollah and Israel and an attempt by the Shi’ite group to topple the elected government.

But Gemayel’s death is more than just another assassination, because he was the first sitting member of government to be killed and his death brings the spectre of a government collapse closer than ever. Two weeks ago, five Shi’ite ministers and a pro-Syrian Christian minister resigned from Fuad Siniora’s U.S.-backed cabinet over the issue of the approval of an international tribunal on Hariri’s killing — which many think would implicate senior Syrian officials. Other politicians gave ominous warnings that Syria would try to assassinate some of the remaining cabinet ministers in order to reduce it below its quorum level of 16 members. With Gemayel’s death, only two ministers stand against its dissolution, and with it the international tribunal.

In Lebanon, history casts a long shadow. It was an attempt on the life of his grandfather, the Phalangist Party founder who was also named Pierre Gemayel, that sparked the massacre in Ain el-Rummane 31 years ago.

“We will not shut up, we will not be silent,” said Wehbe. “Even if the country is destroyed, we will stay.”

Another Lebanese Forces loyalist, Simon Ghanime, 39, said that everyone was ready to take to the streets. They were just waiting for word from their leaders, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, and Amin Gemayel, the slain man’s father and a former president.

“At the end of the day, you have to defend yourself,” Ghanime said. “I listen always to my leader.”
And if, at the end of the day, Geagea or Amin Gemayel says fight?

“Then we have to fight,” he said with a shrug. “They are hunting us (Christians) like birds.”

For now Amin Gemayel has counseled patience and prayer in Bikfaya where his son would be buried on Thursday. But in Beirut and its suburbs like Ain el-Rummane, angry men prowled the streets.

“I won’t leave Lebanon to the Shi’ites or the Syrians,” said Charbel Nasrallah, 24, from a massive convoy that was passing the Phalangist Party Headquarters in East Beirut. “We don’t want Syrians or Iranians to decide our fates. We will.”

But even within the ranks of Lebanon’s right-wing Christians, there are those with less appetite for confrontation.

“The aim of March 8” — the name of the pro-Syrian coalition — “is to get us to fight,” said a former Lebanese Forces fighter who gave his name only as Carlos. “We can’t slip into this trap. It’s in their interest to get us to fight, but we don’t want that.”

Another man who was taping pictures of the slain Gemayel to his car and who gave his name only as Eli echoed the idea that Lebanon’s Christians must unite and not fall into the trap of violence set by Syria and other foreign powers. But he said that even he would fight if his leaders told him to.

“To ensure the Christians stay in this part of the world?” he asked. “Of course I would fight.”

Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger.

Pierre Gemayel has been assassinated

BEIRUT — Pierre Gemayel, industry minister in the Siniora cabinet, a major Christian leader and an anti-Syrian politician has been shot to death in the street. This comes at an extremely tense time in which the anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian camps are close to coming to blows.

I don’t know much right now, but this could be the spark in the can of gasoline that Lebanon has become.

UPDATE: Here’s the story I filed for the San Francisco Chronicle:

BEIRUT — With the killing of Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon’s industry minister and the scion of one its most influential Christian families, Lebanese politics took a dangerous turn with the Christian community deeply split and the U.S.-backed government more under siege than ever.

Gemayel, 34, a member of Lebanon’s political elite, was killed at approximately 3:30 p.m. gangland style Tuesday when his car was rammed by two other cars and gunmen leaped out and sprayed his vehicle with assault rife fire.

His body was taken to St. Joseph Hospital in a Christian neighborhood on the outskirts of Beirut. As the news broke, several hundred supporters of the Phalangist party, gathered as a show of solidarity and an outlet for their rage against their Christian rivals, the Free Patriotic Movement, and Shi’ites.

“Fuck Nasrallah!” many chanted, referring to the leader of the Shi’ite militia Hezbollah. “Fuck Michel Aoun!”

Aoun is the head of the FPM, and there has been bad blood between the Gemayel family, Aoun and the Shi’ites in Lebanon for years. During the latter days of the Lebanese civil war, forces loyal to Aoun battled Christian members of the Phalangist and Lebanese Forces militias in some of the bloodiest battles of that 15-year-long conflict. Pierre Gemayel himself infamously said last year that Shi’ites may have the numbers, but the Christians had the “quality” to run the country.

The crowd at the hospital veered dangerously in its moods. One moment, it was a mass of somber grievers and the next it came dangerously close to being a lynch mob for anyone they thought might be friendly to Hezbollah or Aoun.

“The enemies of Lebanon are known: Aoun, Nasrallah,” said Joseph Germanos, a party loyalist. “They want to create a new war.”

The assassination was roundly denounced, including by Hezbollah, but Aoun gave a press statement that was remarkable in its brevity and lack of emotion. “This crime is against the unity of the Lebanese and is an attempt to sow discord among the Christian ranks,” he said in a flat tone. “I invite all Lebanese to remain calm, and I offer my deepest sympathies to Sheikh Amin Gemayel, and to his wife and family, the Phalangists and to all Lebanese.”

Today is the 70th anniversary of the founding if the Phalange Party by Gemayel’s grandfather, also named Pierre Gemayel.

Last week, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, warned that a campaign of assassinations was in the works and would be aimed at the remaining members of the cabinet in a bid to force its collapse.

“They are killing our Christian leaders so the truth won’t show,” Germanos said.

There is a widespread sentiment among many Lebanese that Syria is behind a string of 15 car bombings, including five assassinations, that started Feb. 14, 2005 with a massive truck bomb that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others. The U.S.-backed government of Fuad Siniora, which is supported by an anti-Syrian bloc in parliament, recently voted to approve an international tribunal that would try suspects in the killings. Many in Lebanon expect the court’s findings to implicate high-level Syrians in the terror campaign against Lebanon.

But the five Shi’ite ministers in the cabinet representing Hezbollah and its allies, along with a pro-Syrian Christian minister, resigned ahead of the vote in protest and said Siniora’s government was unconstitutional because of the lack of Shi’ite representation. Hezbollah then ratcheted up tensions in the country with promises of massive protests, expected on Thursday, it says are designed to bring about the collapse of the Siniora government. Under Lebanon’s political rules, if nine of the Cabinet’s 24 ministers resign or are absent, the government must resign. With the death of Gemayel, only two ministers stand in the way of this outcome.

Ironically, however, the murder of Gemayel could put Hezbollah on the defensive because of its close ties to Syria and force the militia into a compromise.

“It puts Hezbollah in the embarrassing position in the sense that they have been so blatantly defending Syria’s interests,” said Reinoud Leenders, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Amsterdam and a former analyst for the International Crisis Group in Beirut. “They have been put in the Syrian camp much more than in the past. I just have a sense that people are skeptical of Hezbollah’s recent moves.”

With the likely Security Council approval of the international tribunal on Thursday, Syria may be playing a double game, speculates Leenders. Washington has been reaching out to Damascus recently for help in Iraq, and the regime there may be trying to make a point to the United States.

“I wouldn’t rule out them being a pain in the neck and at the same time reaching out to Washington,” he said. “They might be trying to convey a message: ‘You have to talk to us, because otherwise we can be a pain in the neck.’ I wouldn’t rule out them being behind it.”

Already, youths surrounding the Phalangist headquarters in East Beirut say they plan to stay in the streets as a counter to any demonstrations Hezbollah might plan. These demonstrations by the anti-Syrian camp could “pre-empt” the Hezbollah one and weaken their effectiveness, said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Center for International Peace and an expert on Hezbollah.

“March 8 will have a hard time with the demonstrations now,” she said “March 8” is what Hezbollah and its other pro-Syrian allies calls its coalition. Christian sympathy for Aoun also may leech away, she said.

But the threat of massive street protests by Hezbollah and the Aounists still looms, and the possibility of renewed civil conflict between the two camps is very real.

“All the elements are there for clashes, and pretty serious ones,” said Leenders. “The political process is bogged down, the talk of war, the creepy signs before the storm atmosphere. I’m pretty worried.”

When asked if they were prepared to fight their enemies in the street, one young man in the crowd at the hospital, who declined to give his name other than Kataeb — Arabic for “Phalangist” — said, “We lost everything. We don’t have anything to lose again.”

Another young man said he was just waiting for the signal from Pierre’s father, Amin Gemayel, a former president of Lebanon.

“Whatever President Gemayel says,” said David Jaara, 25. “We are prepared for 10,000 martyrs, 20,000. We are prepared.”