Murder polarizes Lebanon

Shiite ministers walk out of government to protest a possible UN investigation.

The murder of Gibran Tueni, an outspoken Lebanese critic of Syria, has plunged Lebanon into a political crisis that is threatening to topple the government and aggravate an already fraught sectarian climate.

The crisis is pitting Lebanon's Shiites, who remain deeply suspicious of Western influence in internal affairs, against other sects who seek international support against the alleged destabilizing tactics of Syria.

"It's an extremely critical and dangerous period," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, assistant professor of politics at Beirut's Lebanese American University. "There is a political civil war in Lebanon, much colder than the civil war of the past because it's being played out politically and on the streets."

The latest tensions in Lebanon came as the UN Security Council prepared to discuss Tuesday the second progress report of a UN commission investigating the death of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The document, submitted to the Security Council Monday, reaffirmed its earlier findings that Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were involved in Hariri's murder.

Earlier this month, Lebanon requested that the UN extend the commission's mandate, which expires Thursday, for six more months. Detlev Mehlis, the outgoing chief investigator who has led the probe since June, has said that an inquiry of this complexity could take months, if not years.

But the UN may soon have more than one Lebanese investigation on its hands if it accedes to a fresh plea to launch an inquiry into the Monday assassination of Mr. Tueni, a journalist and a parliamentarian. Many Lebanese blame Syria for his death, although Damascus has denied any involvement.

The Lebanese government voted Monday evening to ask the UN to expand the Hariri probe to include the murder of Tueni and other victims of a yearlong assassination campaign. However, five Shiite ministers in the 24-member cabinet walked out of the meeting, saying they were suspending their participation in the government.

"We object to the principle of internationalizing all Lebanese files and abandoning [Lebanon's] sovereignty," said Mohammed Fneish, the energy minister and one of two Hizbullah members in the cabinet.

Following Syria's troop pullout from its neighbor in April, Lebanon has begun to splinter along the old sectarian fault lines. The rift is deepest between the Shiites, the largest sect in Lebanon, and other communities, mainly the Sunnis, Christians and Druze. The increasing influence of the West, in particular from the US and the UN, in Lebanese affairs has alarmed the powerful Hizbullah organization, which has emerged de facto as the voice of most Lebanese Shiites.

Hizbullah suspects that Washington intends to use Lebanon as a tool to press its agenda, which includes squeezing Syria, disarming Hizbullah's military wing, and coercing Lebanon into a peace agreement with Israel.

In the eyes of many non-Shiite Lebanese, Iran-supported Hizbullah is out of step with the national consensus, and serves the interests of Damascus. But such views underestimate the power that Hizbullah has become, says Timur Goksel, university lecturer in Beirut and former UN official.

"I don't see Hizbullah as a weak party in this relationship [with Syria] at all," he says. "They really have become a major element in Lebanese politics and they are probably more influential on Syria than Syria is on them."

That influence could play a critical role in determining whether the government will stand or fall in the coming days. "Not a single government can be formed without the Shiites," says Hussein Naboulsi, spokesman for Hizbullah, "and Hizbullah represents the big majority of Shiites."

The tussle over the future direction of Lebanon is likely to strain even further the already fragile communal relations, says Saad-Ghorayeb, the professor of politics and Hizbullah expert.

"Tueni's assassination, in my opinion, is far more polarizing that Hariri's assassination," she says, "and the political implications of this and the way it's going to be played out in the days to come are really going to be destabilizing."

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