Political Killings Keep Lebanon on Edge

The death of Lebanon's Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel, is the latest in a string of political killings in Lebanon. Many believe Syria is behind this murder. Rami Khouri, editor at large for the Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, discusses developments with Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Rami Khouri is editor at large of the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star. He's in Boston today and he's with us now. Welcome back to the program, Rami.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (The Daily Star): Thank you. It's nice to be back.

SIEGEL: First I'd like you to give us your reaction to the assassination of Pierre Gemayel and some context, some sense of how large an event this is in contemporary Lebanon.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, I think there's several contexts and all of them are not very good. First of all, this is one of a string of such attacks that have happened, certainly since the death of Hariri a year and three quarters ago, but over the past 30 years there's been many assassinations of political figures in Lebanon, and this is one more unfortunately and probably not the last.

Also this comes at a time when almost all the other bad things that could happen in Lebanon happened. You've had an all out war. You've had an eternal political confrontation. You have external pressures coming from the East and the West, from the U.S., from the U.N., from Syria, from Iran. You've got people dropping out of the cabinet. Almost political stalemate. So most of the indicators are not good and this just adds to it a new level of political violence which will inflame one community.

The only good thing we can say is that this has happened frequently in the last year and a half and people have not resorted to civil war. There is a clear commitment by all the parties to have a strong political battle, but to do it peacefully and not violently.

SIEGEL: We heard in Peter Kenyon's report the accusation and then the denial of Syrian complicity here. Do you think that people in Lebanon today just naturally assume Syria is some way involved in this?

Mr. KHOURI: I think most people, certainly a majority, do. I mean, that's been clear for the last year and eight months, ever since Hariri was killed. The spontaneous, almost Pavlovian reaction is that the Syrians or Syria's friends have done this and this keeps coming back over and over again. It was very strong when Hariri died. It drove the Syrians out.

And I think you're going to get at some point soon, if this happens again or possibly after this assassination, whoever is involved, the anger is going to be directed at Syria and I wouldn't be surprised if you started getting some tit for tat revenge killings or bombings or explosions.

The only thing that's interesting here particularly different is that the nature of the killing is not the same as the ones in the previous assassinations. They were mostly done by sophisticated bombs in cars. This one was done by people stopping his car and spraying him with bullets, with machine guns and then with a silencer. So it's not the same kind of killing as the other ones, and that possibly may be important.

The other important thing is that there's a massive international investigative team looking at all of these other killings, including Hariri's, and they will get right on this one, so the chances of finding the culprits are probably higher than they were in the previous killings.

SIEGEL: Pierre Gemayel's grandfather, I suppose was also Pierre Gemayel, founded the old Falangist Party in Lebanon. Is the party or the family still as powerful as it was back in the civil war of the 1980s?

Mr. KHOURI: No, it's not. The party split and it was overtaken by other Christian groups, Aoun and Jaja and others. But they still represent in many ways the sort of legacy of Christian political activism and resistance, and I think you have to see this as not just a Falangist or a Jamu(ph) issue, but this really is something that will reverberate with many of the Christians. And it's going to cause pressures on Aoun, who's a Christian who's allied with Hezbollah, Michele Aoun. So you're going to get really complex political reactions internally in the country.

But the real battle, this is not a purely internal Lebanese issue anymore. This is really a surrogate war between Iran and Syria on one side with Hezbollah and their friends inside, and the president and others in Lebanon, and on the other side you've got the government of Lebanon, Hariri and Siniora and that group, March 14, with the U.S. and the U.N. investigation. So the real battle is larger than Lebanon, but unfortunately it's being fought on Lebanese soil again.

SIEGEL: Rami Khouri, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KHOURI: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Rami Khouri, who is editor of Lebanon's newspaper The Daily Star. He was speaking to us today from Boston.

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