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.”