Activist's Assassination Punctuates Lebanese Elections

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Lebanese writer and activist Samir Kassir was assassinated with a car bomb in Beirut on Thursday. He had been an outspoken critic of Syrian occupation and influence in Lebanon. Melissa Block talks with Rami Khouri, syndicated columnist and editor-at-large of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, about the killing and its effect on parliamentary elections.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In today's edition of the daily newspaper An Nahar in Beirut, a front-page editorial is titled: Samir Kassir is Not Writing Today. The weekly columnist was assassinated in the Lebanese capital yesterday. A bomb placed under the seat of his Alfa Romeo was detonated seconds after he got into the car. Kassir was 45, a longtime critic of Syrian involvement in Lebanon and a founding member of an opposition group there. Rami Khouri is editor at large of The Daily Star in Lebanon. He joins us from Beirut.

And, Mr. Khouri, can you tell just more please about Samir Kassir and what he wrote in his columns?

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor at Large, The Daily Star): Yes, Samir has had a distinguished career in commentary, mainly--was his main field. He really was an intellectual and a thinker, and he wrote books. But I think the most important attribute that probably cost him his life was his courage, his outspokenness. And he actually had a lot of influence on me in the last two years, and his courage prompted me to speak out a lot more forcefully about security issues and others as well.

BLOCK: In your own column today you talk about Samir Kassir's `spirit of bold, persistent insubordination to those in authority.'

Mr. KHOURI: Yeah, I think his really--his most important deed in recent years was just about a year ago, last June or so. He started publicly challenging what he called the Syrian and Lebanese security state and naming by name the security agencies and leaders in Syria and Lebanon, the intelligence and police chiefs. And this was unprecedented in Arab culture, so he really took a bold, courageous step. Others followed, but he reflected what millions and millions of people in the Arab world feel.

BLOCK: I was struck by the comments made by the US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, after Mr. Kassir's assassination. He said, `We know who his enemies must be.'

Mr. KHOURI: Well, it's clear that he antagonized the Syrian and Lebanese security leaderships. I mean, they had taken his--the Lebanese police had taken his passport away. He had received threats over the years. So it was obvious who would be upset by his kind of writing. But his criticism sparked, I think, a wider movement, and the killing of Hariri, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, last February unleashed a whole tidal wave of spontaneous national criticism of the Syrian presence in Lebanon and of the Lebanese leadership. And this killing now--my sense is that this is going to unleash a second wave of mass anger, and it'll be politically directed at the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud. And there already have been calls for Lahoud to resign.

BLOCK: Emile Lahoud has the backing of Syria. The Lebanese opposition is explicitly blaming Syria for Samir Kassir's assassination. Walk us through how that would work. Syrian troops have now pulled out of Lebanon, but is the assumption that the intelligence network is still in place, for example?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, there's accusations by many people that some of the intelligence system is still in place. The Syrians deny this. They deny any involvement in this killing or the killing of Hariri. There's an international investigation now going on, headed by a German judge through the UN, to look at Hariri's murder. So it'll take some time for the facts to be known and to find out who actually did this. The important thing is that the political anger is very clearly directed against Syria and Syria's political allies, including the Lebanese president in Lebanon.

BLOCK: Mr. Kassir's killing comes as Lebanon is in the midst of parliamentary elections. The opposition swept in Beirut last weekend, but there are now votes happening over the next three Sundays throughout the country. What effects do you think this assassination might have on those votes?

Mr. KHOURI: The likelihood is that it will probably--his killing will probably generate a greater sympathy vote and will probably mobilize more people to get out and vote and to make sure that the opposition does get a majority in the new Parliament. So there will be an opportunity to really build a new Lebanon, and this is really a challenge for the Lebanese political class as a whole.

BLOCK: Mr. Khouri, thanks very much.

Mr. KHOURI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Rami Khouri is editor at large of The Daily Star in Lebanon. The slain writer and activist Samir Kassir is to be buried in Beirut tomorrow.

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