Civil war – the words on all our lips yesterday. Pierre Gemayel’s murder – in broad daylight, in a Christian suburb of Beirut, his car blocked mafia-style by another vehicle while his killer fired through the driver’s window into the head of Lebanon’s minister of industry – was a message for all of us who live in this tragic land.
For days, we had been debating whether it was time for another political murder to ratchet up the sectarian tensions now that the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was about to fall. For days now, the political language of Lebanon had been incendiary, the threats and bullying of the political leaders ever more fearsome. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Shia Hizbollah leader, had been calling Siniora’s cabinet illegitimate. “The government of Feltman,” he was calling it – Jeffrey Feltman is the US ambassador to Lebanon – while the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was claiming Iran was trying to take over.
Yesterday’s assassination of Pierre Gemayel was a warning. It might have been Jumblatt, who has told me many times that he constantly awaits his own death, or it might have been Siniora himself, the little economist and friend of the also murdered former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
But no. Gemayel, son of ex-president Amin Gemayel and nephew of the murdered president-elect, Bashir Gemayel – murder tends to run in the family in Lebanon – was no charismatic figure, just a hard-working unmarried Christian Maronite minister whose unrewarding task had been to call émigré Lebanese home to rebuild their country after Israel’s bloody bombardment.
The fires burnt in the streets of Christian east Beirut last night and there were hundreds of young and occasionally armed young men in the neighbourhood of Jdeideh, where Gemayel was killed. “I want no revenge,” his father Amin pleaded in front of the hospital where his body lay. But violence crackles through the air in a city where four anti-Syrian politicians and journalists have been assassinated in 21 months.
Gemayel, too, was a harsh critic of Syria, which was one reason why Hariri’s son Saad – leader of the March 14th movement which controls parliament – blamed Damascus for his death.
Yet nothing happens by accident in Lebanon and political detectives – as opposed to the police kind who most assuredly will not find Gemayel’s killers – have to look beyond this country’s frontiers to understand why ghosts may soon climb out of the mass graves of the civil war.
Why did Gemayel die just hours after Syria announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iraq after a quarter of a century? Why has Nasrallah threatened street demonstrations in Beirut to bring down the government when Siniora’s cabinet had just accepted the UN’s tribunal to try Hariri’s assassins?
And why did America’s UN ambassador, John Bolton, weep crocodile tears for Lebanon’s democracy – which he cared so little about when Israel smashed into Lebanon this summer – without mentioning Syria?
All this, of course, takes place as thousands of Western troops pour into Lebanon to shore up the UN force in the south of the country: UN troops who are supposed to protect Israel (which they cannot do) and disarm Hizbollah (which they will not do) and who are already being threatened by al-Qa’ida.
No wonder the Europeans, whose armoured Nato forces now lie trapped in the south of the country, are so fearful. No wonder the Foreign Office has been telling Britons to stay away. No wonder Tony Blair – as discredited in the Middle East as he is in Britain – has been demanding an inquiry into Gemayel’s assassination, something he will not get.
Hypocrisy isn’t the word for it, though recent history provides all the clues. When Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three on 12 July, Israel bombed Lebanon for 34 days, slaughtered more than a thousand civilians and caused billions of dollars of damage. It blamed Siniora’s government and Mr Bolton and his fellow American diplomats did nothing to help the hapless prime minister. President George Bush wanted Israel to destroy Hizbollah – which they totally failed to do – as a warning to his latest Middle East target, which just happens to be Hizbollah’s principal supporter, Iran. So much for Lebanese democracy. Even Mr Blair, so anxious about Lebanon yesterday, saw no reason for an immediate ceasefire.
In the aftermath of the war and the failure of all Israel’s war aims, Sayed Nasrallah began to boast that he had won a “divine victory” and that Siniora’s government had failed. Hizbollah, of course, is also Syria’s friend and no one was surprised that the anti-Syrian government came under the lash of the Shia prelate whose giant billboard posters across Lebanon suggest he is suffering the cult of personality.
Twelve days ago, all six Shia ministers left the cabinet, leaving the largest religious sect in Lebanon unrepresented in government. Last Monday, Siniora’s government – Gemayel included – approved the UN’s plans for a tribunal to try Hariri’s killers, whom most Lebanese suspect were working for the Syrians. But without the presence of the Shia, their decision may have no legal status. Nasrallah began to call for street demonstrations.
If he is the creature of Syria and Iran – and the Lebanese are still debating this while Nasrallah denies it – there could have been no better way of striking at Lebanon’s anti-Syrian government. “We can have no confidence in this government because it obeys the orders of the US administration,” Nasrallah announced. “… the cabinet has received an order from the US embassy assuring them that American policy in the region has not changed. The Americans told them: ‘We are with you – don’t give up!'”
Nasrallah chided those who claimed he was trying to create a crisis between Shia and Sunni Muslims, although many fear that their own religious divisions reflect, in faint and phantom form, the blood-drenched sectarianism of Iraq.
And does America really support Siniora, whose cabinet may now be in its death throes? At the UN, Mr Bolton loudly supported it yesterday while desperately avoiding the use of the word Syria. That almost certainly means Washington does at last realise that it will need the help of Damascus – as well as Tehran – to pull its tanks and troops out of the slough of Iraq.
Beside America’s catastrophe in Mesopotamia, the democracy of Lebanon and Siniora’s government doesn’t amount to the proverbial hill of beans – as Syria and Iran are well aware. And Syria, yesterday, resumed diplomatic relations with the American-supported government of Iraq.
Today, Lebanon celebrates – it would be difficult to find a more lugubrious word on such an occasion – its 63rd year of independence from France, whose troops again patrol southern Lebanon. And Siniora’s government still – just – exists. With Gemayel gone, however, it would only need the loss of two more cabinet ministers to destroy the legitimacy of his Shia-less cabinet and close down Lebanese democracy.
The Lebanese may be too mature for another civil war. But ministers might be well advised to avoid driving their ministerial cars along the highways of Beirut for the next few days lest someone blocks their way and fires through the driver’s window.