Lebanon’s Ghanem’s Assassination Targets Syria As Culprit

Wednesday’s assassination of an anti-Syrian MP in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut has left Lebanon reeling, just days before the parliament is due to elect the country’s next President.

Antoine Ghanem, a 64 year-old member of the right-wing Christian Phalange Party, was the eighth prominent anti-Syrian figure and the fourth member of the ruling coalition government to be killed in Lebanon since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The Phalange party is part of the March 14 Alliance bloc which holds a majority in Lebanon’s parliament. The March 14 Alliance is named after the revolution in 2005 that followed Mr Hariri’s assassination and drove Syrian troops out of Lebanon after 30 years of occupation. The Lebanese then elected an anti-Syrian government.

Mr Ghanem’s assassination reduces the voting power of the coalition to 67 seats in the 128-member Lebanese parliament – a mere two votes above the absolute majority of 65 it needs to elect a new president outright. The opposition, led by the Syrian-backed militant group Hezbollah, controls only 59 seats.

At 5.20 pm on Wednesday, a parked car packed with 30 kg of TNT exploded as Mr Ghanem drove past in the densely populated Christian district of Sin el-Fil in eastern Beirut, killing eight people including Mr Ghanem and leaving dozens more wounded.

The powerful blast left people, cars and buildings in flames. In the aftermath, the scene was strewn with bloodied body parts, twisted metal and shattered glass. The engine of Mr Ghanem’s black Chevrolet had been thrown 150 feet.

“It went dark, then a blinding light followed,” flower shop owner Toufic Shabib told the New York Times. “I ran outside. Everything was burning – cars, people. It was like a war zone.”

“Syria is back and is killing off more of our anti-Syrian politicians!” a bloodied Emile Abou Hamad told the Daily Star. Mr Hamad’s nearby car-rental business sustained heavy damage in the explosion.

After the June assassination of March 14 Alliance MP Walid Eido, 40 members of the Lebanese government coalition had left the country for their own protection. They returned two days ago to begin preparations for the presidential election.

Mr Ghanem knew he was a target and had replaced his blue parliamentary license plates with regular plates as a precaution. He’d also asked fellow MP Antoine Andraos for a bulletproof car earlier in the day.

“He had been outside the country for two months and just came back on Sunday,” one of Mr Ghanem’s daughters, Mouna, told Al Jazeera. “He didn’t have the means to protect himself like the others but he was very fatalistic.” She was driving into Beirut from the mountains when she saw plumes of smoke rising from Sin el-Fil.

“Something told me that it was him. I had just spoken to him this morning and told him to be careful,” she said.

Pro-government officials immediately blamed Damascus for the carnage.

“I have never seen a more cowardly regime than that of Bashar Assad’s,” lawmaker Saad Hariri told the Associated Press. Mr Hariri replaced his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as head of the Lebanese parliament’s anti-Syrian alliance following his assassination in February 2005.

“It is the only regime that does not want presidential elections in Lebanon to be held,” said Cabinet member Ahmed Fatfat.

Wael Abu Faour, a Druze MP, also said: “Syria wants to prevent the majority from remaining a majority by assassinating its members.”

Syria quickly denied any involvement in the assassination. “This criminal act aims at undermining efforts paid by Syria and others to achieve Lebanese national accord,” said a statement posted by Syria’s state-run news agency SANA.

In Washington, the White House condemned the assassination and suggested Syria was the culprit, but stopped short of a direct accusation. “There has been a pattern of political assassinations and attempted assassinations designed to intimidate those working courageously toward a sovereign and democratic Lebanon,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino. “The victims of these cowardly attacks have consistently been those who publicly sought to end Syria’s interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.”

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice also released a statement that said: “The bombing that claimed these lives was another in a campaign of terror by those who want to turn back the clock on Lebanon’s hard-win democratic gains. Enemies of peace and freedom want to gain through violence, threat, and intimidation what they cannot win in free and fair elections.”

Thursday was declared an official day of mourning in Lebanon. The Phalange party and the Beirut Merchants Association called for all businesses to remain closed, while the Education Ministry confirmed that it had cancelled all school and university classes for Thursday and Friday, when the funeral will be held.

On Wednesday evening, there were reports of rioting in parts of Beirut between pro-government and opposition supporters.

Fearing further bloodshed before a new president is elected, Phalange party member Dany Abi Rached said the majority deputies should choose a president “tomorrow”. He told the Daily Star that Mr Ghamed’s assassins “have six days – they can kill a lot of deputies.”

Parliament will re-convene on September 25 to begin the election process. They have until November 24, when President Emile Lahoud’s term expires, to make a decision.

Under Lebanon’s unwritten constitutional agreement, the presidency is earmarked for a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister’s post is reserved for a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker’s post is held for a Shiite Muslim.

The Hezbollah-led opposition insists it will block any presidential candidate it has not approved, and will boycott the election process if necessary. This would prevent the required two-thirds quorum of 85 votes.

In response, the coalition government has threatened to elect a president from within their own ranks with a simple majority.

If an agreement is not reached by November 24, the future of Lebanese governance looks unnervingly fragile.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his Cabinet would automatically assume executive powers. However, pro-Syrian President Lahoud has said that if the rival factions could not reach agreement before he left office, he would appoint an interim government led by the army commander, General Michel Suleiman.

This would in effect be a competing government to that of Prime Minister Siniora.

Yet political analyst Simon Haddad said that emotions could well settle and enable a consensus process to succeed. “They always react like this first, and then they change and call for reaching a compromise and reducing tensions for the sake of the country,” he said. “I see it both ways. It could be an instigator to pressure all the parties to reach a consensus.”

Many consider that the worst case scenario would be for the divisions to lead to the creation of two rival governments, which could revisit the last two years of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, when army units loyal to competing administrations waged intense battles and reduced vast tracts Beirut to rubble.

 

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