Lebanon Still Rattled by Gemayal's Murder

NPR's Scott Simon talks to professor Fawaz Gerges about the assassination of Lebanese politician Pierre Gemayel and its impact on the country's fragile coalition government.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The murder this week of Lebanese politician Pierre Gemayal has not been solved. But Lebanon's warring political factions are pointing fingers. Mr. Gemayal's pro-Western allies in the government blame Syria for the killing. But supporters of Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement supported by Syria and Iran, contend that some of Mr. Gemayal's coalition partners must've engineered his assassination.

Fawaz Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence University, and a visiting professor at the American University in Cairo, where he joins us now by phone. Professor Gerges, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor FAWAZ GERGES (American University, Cairo): My pleasure.

SIMON: And who gains and who loses from Mr. Gemayal's death?

Prof. GERGES: Well, I think it's too early to say definitely who wins and who loses. In the short term, however, the main loser is the Syrian/Iranian alliance led by Hezbollah. Hezbollah now is trying to defend against accusations by the ruling pro-Western alliance that it had a hand in the assassination of Pierre Gemayal. It's on the defensive. I think the assassination of Gemayal has slowed down the political momentum of Hezbollah in Lebanon since the end of the Israeli war in Lebanon in the summer.

SIMON: He was gunned down in his own neighborhood, which is in the heart of Christian Beirut. What does that suggest to you about the nature of Beirut at this point?

Prof. GERGES: This is a very good question, because he was killed outside his headquarters, the Phalange Party's. It was a very brazen attack. In the heart, not only in Beirut, but Christian Beirut, to which Pierre Gemayal belonged himself. The killers who pulled the triggers did not bother to cover their faces at 3:00 o'clock PM. This tells you that the killers are Lebanese. And the question to me - were they given orders by outside powers, by neighboring states?

SIMON: We should explain, certainly, to our listeners, that Pierre Gemayal's grandfather was a founder of the Phalange Party and his father, of course, was a former president of Lebanon.

Prof. GERGES: Absolutely. And his uncle, Bashir Gemayal, was elected the president of Lebanon in 1983, and of course he was gunned down. And the opposition is saying the Gemayal family - and the opposition - Syria killed his uncle, Bashir Gemayal, Syria now killed the nephew, Pierre Gemayal. There's a long history, a complicated history, a bloody history, in Lebanese politics, unfortunately.

SIMON: Well, Professor Gerges what do you think this assassination does to Lebanon right now?

Prof. GERGES: The Lebanese people are deeply divided. And I fear the assassination deepens and widens the divide among and within the Lebanese communities. And I fear that Lebanon is inching closer to a major disaster.

SIMON: I imagine by that what you're suggesting is civil war or full-scale civil war. Who would benefit from that?

Prof. GERGES: Lebanon historically has served as a staging ground for regional and great powers. And I believe that the main beneficiaries of a major civil war in Lebanon would be Lebanon's neighbors - Israel, Syria and Iran. There's a fierce battle taking place in Lebanon today, not only between the various Lebanese factions, but between the two alliances, what I could the Syrian-Iranian alliance on the one hand led by Hezbollah, and the American alliance led by the ruling coalition party in Lebanon.

SIMON: Fawaz Gerges, of Sarah Lawrence University, speaking to us from Cairo, where he's a visiting professor at the American University there. Professor Gerges, thanks very much.

Prof. GERGES: My pleasure.

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