Samir Kassir, one of Lebanon's leading journalists and a prominent anti-Syrian campaigner, was killed when his car exploded Thursday, stunning a country that had begun to believe that recent violence was finally over.
The shock of Mr. Kassir's death, four months after former Prime Minister Rafki Hariri was assassinated, is a stark reminder of Lebanon's perilous stability as it emerges from Syrian domination into an uncertain era of independence.
Although no one had claimed responsibility for the blast at press time, Lebanese opposition figures were swift to blame Syria and its Lebanese allies.
"Bashar al-Assad and Emile Lahoud are behind it," insists senior opposition leader Marwan Hamade, referring to the Syrian and Lebanese presidents, respectively. Mr. Hamade narrowly survived an assassination attempt last October.
"Samir Kassir was a defender of democracy in the Arab world and a courageous journalist who confronted dictatorships, especially the joint dictatorship established by Lebanon and Syria," he adds.
Rafik Shelala, spokesman for President Lahoud, called Kassir's murder "a grave incident," and said the president had ordered an investigation. "It's better not to make accusations until the circumstances are uncovered," Mr. Shelala told Al Arabiya satellite channel.
Kassir's death came just four days after Lebanon embarked on a round of key parliamentary elections that are expected to seal the end of Syria's domination of Lebanon. Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon at the end of April after the death of Mr. Hariri triggered mass anti-Syrian protests.
The opposition is set to triumph at the polls, which conclude on June 19, and will probably form the basis of the next government.
The pro-Syrian camp has withered following Damascus's disengagement from Lebanon. Some opposition figures have called for the resignation of Lahoud, Syria's most faithful ally in Lebanon, as the first order of business following the creation of a new government after the elections. Kassir's death is likely to strengthen that demand.
With Syrian troops gone and the Lebanese intelligence services undergoing a purge of its pro-Syrian chiefs, many Lebanese are asking what could be gained from acts of violence against opposition figures.
But Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese law professor and democracy campaigner, says that Kassir's murder fits an unfolding pattern of repression that has been seen in Syria over the past two weeks.
"Paranoia is sitting heavily in Damascus," he says. "They perceive it as a battle for survival and they are fighting everyone who calls into question the Stalinist system they have there.... For them it is all-out war."
Despite withdrawing from Lebanon in accordance with a United Nations resolution, Syria remains under intense pressure from the US over a raft of other issues. The Syrian regime has arrested several opposition activists recently in an apparent crackdown prior to a key conference of the ruling Baath Party that begins in Damascus on Monday. The conference is seen as a make-or-break opportunity for the Syrian regime to usher in some crucial and long-awaited reforms. But the latest action against dissenters in Syria and the murder of Kassir have dampened hopes that meaningful reforms are imminent.
Kassir died instantly in the explosion that occurred on a busy street around 10:30 a.m., moments after he had left his home in the Ashrafieh district of Beirut. "He crossed the road, got into the car, turned the key and the car blew up," says Adil Hassan, owner of a florist shop opposite the scene of the blast.
Kassir, a veteran columnist for Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper, was a staunch opponent of Syria's long- running hegemony of Lebanon and a supporter of democracy in the Middle East. His death has chilled Lebanon's journalistic community, the most vibrant and outspoken in the Arab world.
"I'm unable to think about it. I'm still in shock," says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist for As Safir newspaper and a friend of Kassir. "One of our close friends has paid for his views with his life."
A tearful Malek Mrowe, a prominent Lebanese businessman who had dined with Kassir the previous night, says the journalist had been in an optimistic mood. "Samir said, 'now the Syrians have gone, we can say whatever we want. Lebanon will be the democratic model for the region,' " says Mr. Mrowe.
Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, visited the scene of the explosion. "Every time Lebanon takes a step forward, there are those who want to undermine this country," he said.
Nassib Lahoud, a prominent opposition campaigner and a cousin of the Lebanese president, says, "We will not rest until all the remnants of the security and intelligence system are completely removed."