Lebanon Simmers a Year After Hariri's Death

Since the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri a year ago, the country is divided over its political direction. A rally this week, with an estimated 1 million people in attendance, included political speeches openly charging Syria with murdering Hariri.

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A year after the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, that country is still deeply divided over its future. This week a rally estimated at a million Lebanese mark Mr. Hariri's death with political speeches, opening charging Syria with his murder. But as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut, there are still powerful pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

The offices of al-Nahar, a prominent Beirut newspaper, overlooks the city's central square. A large portrait of the paper's popular columnist, Gibran Tueni, hangs over the front entrance, in memory of his death a few months ago in a massive car bomb explosion. His 82-year old father, Gassan(ph) Tueni, still runs the newspaper. From his eighth floor office this week, the elder Tueni watched the rally build on the square below, listened to Lebanese politicians challenge Syria and its allies in Lebanon.

Mr. GASSAN TUENI (Publisher, al-Nahar Newspaper, Beirut): I mean, what do we do? Keep saying, Oh, we can't beat Syria, we can't challenge Syria, and be shot one after another?

AMOS: Tueni and other blamed Damascus for a campaign of bombings and assassinations that has targeted anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. Fearing for their lives, other political leaders have fled the country. Still others stay home and heavily guarded.

Jowda Kawi(ph), who helped organize this week's rally, says Lebanon cannot function under this pressure.

Mr. JOWDA KAWI: You know something, the problem is they're telling you we want to kill you and they're killing you. It's another way of living a war.

(Soundbite of protestors)

AMOS: This is one way of protesting that war. As demonstrators converged on the city square, waving Lebanese flags to mark the anniversary of Hariri's death, organizers wanted to revive last year's spirit when the rallying cry was independence. This year, the focus was on Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, handpicked by Syria.

(Soundbite of protestors)

AMOS: Political leaders pledged to drive Lahoud from office in the next 30 days. It is a new and daring strategy, says political analyst Rami Houri(ph).

Mr. RAMI HOURI (Political Analyst): The needed a political focus, which I think they got, which was the Presidency. That kind of rejuvenates, I think, the political spirit. So we'll see how they handle it now.

AMOS: Lebanon's President has vowed to keep his seat, but his challengers, led by Hairi's son, Saad Hariri, now have a majority in Parliament. Again, Rami Houri.

Mr. HOURI: And it will lead to resistance from the Syrians and resistance from some Lebanese groups. So this is really a test of their political savvy.

AMOS: It is also a test of Lebanon's complicated sectarian politics. Many Shiite Muslims stayed away from the rally this week, as they did a year ago. Powerful pro-Syrian parties dominate Shiite politics. Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist organization, also has ties to Iran. It has meant a split between Shiite Muslims and Sunnis, says Dima Sensenig-Dabbous, a lawyer and professor of media studies.

Professor DIMA SENSENIG-DABBOUS (Lawyer and Professor of Media Studies): The say that Shiites are actually the biggest majority, and maybe on their own they're a majority in the country. And that's a very scary reality, I think. They will take the country in a different direction, which I would not like.

AMOS: For Dabbous, that direction is an anti-Western alliance with Syria and Iran. It's why the leaders of the rally this week said they were determined to take a stand. Mosbah Abdah is a member of Parliament.

Mr. MOSBAH ABDAH (Member, Lebanon Parliament): I think any Lebanese who wants or who hopes that this country will have the possibility to get to being a modern country, open to the world, not in disagreement with the international community, has the impression of being marginalized.

AMOS: The challenge to Lebanon's Syrian-backed president sets the stage for a more open political battle to come.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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