Funeral march turns to protest in Lebanon

Anti-Syrian journalist's death in bombing provokes fresh wave of revulsion, despair

December 15, 2005|By MEGAN K. STACK | MEGAN K. STACK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Tens of thousands of Lebanese spilled into the streets of Beirut yesterday as a funeral march for publisher and legislator Gibran Tueni turned into a political protest against Syria.

The prominent newspaper magnate was assassinated in a bombing Monday morning as he was being driven to work. A columnist who served up scathing criticisms of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs in the days when many Lebanese still tiptoed around the taboo of speaking out against Damascus, Tueni, 48, was the fourth anti-Syria figure to be killed this year.

"I call on this occasion not for revenge or hatred but for us to bury with Gibran all our hatreds," Ghassan Tueni told reporters at the Greek Orthodox church where his son was buried. "To call on all Lebanese, Muslims and Christians to unite in the service of the great Lebanon."

Gibran Tueni's death provoked a fresh wave of revulsion and despair in Lebanon, along with a growing sense of helplessness to prevent a steady series of killings and bombings. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14 hasn't been solved, but many Lebanese insist Syria is to blame for his death. They also accuse Syria of orchestrating more than a dozen bombings, assassinations and near-misses that followed Hariri's killing.

Syrian forces entered Lebanon during the country's 1975-1990 civil war and remained in control after the fighting stopped. The Syrian-dominated power structure collapsed when local rage and fierce international ire stirred by Hariri's death forced Damascus to withdraw its soldiers and at least some of its intelligence agents from Lebanon during the spring.

But despite the disappearance of visible Syrian power, many Lebanese still complain that Damascus has kept a grip on the country through undercover intelligence agents and Lebanese allies.

"The equation is clear," Lebanese lawmaker Akram Shehayeb said yesterday during a special session of parliament called to honor Tueni. "He who gives orders is in Damascus. The executioner is here in Beirut."

Tueni's coffin was draped with the red, white and green flag of Lebanon and carried slowly through the streets of downtown Beirut to the church. Under the pealing of church bells, the death march made its way through the square named after Tueni's grandfather, who founded An-Nahar newspaper in the 1930s.

The newspaper became one of Lebanon's most respected publications, and Tueni ran it as a platform for outspoken opinion pieces until his death. His eldest daughter, Nayla Tueni, also works as a journalist for the newspaper, whose name means "The Day."

Out of respect for Tueni's burial, wide swaths of Beirut were deserted yesterday. War-pocked neighborhoods stood still except for a few street corner congregations of old men hunched over backgammon boards. Empty avenues ran through block after block of shuttered shops and offices.

At first glance, the march was reminiscent of the street protests this year that helped drive Syrian forces out of Lebanon. But today's Lebanon isn't as clear-cut as the nation that struggled and at times almost appeared to be succeeding to set aside its religious divides to unite against Syrian influence.

Mourners gathered under the flags of the former civil war militias and sported buttons with pictures of former warlords. Under a baking sun, followers of Christian militia leader Samir Geagea formed triangles with their fingers to salute their militia-turned-political party. At the edge of that mini-rally, supporters of rival Christian leader Michele Aoun brushed past, chanting slogans in their trademark orange.

Meanwhile, in the predominantly Shiite Muslim suburbs of Beirut, the day wound on like any other. There was no sign of mourning, and business bustled in the shops. Shiites have traditionally been backed by Damascus, and many regarded the anti-Syria movement as an attempt by Christians and Sunni Muslims to disenfranchise the Shiite community.

After Tueni's death, the Lebanese government asked the United Nations to establish an international tribunal to try those responsible in the string of attacks here. But Shiite ministers were so angry with the request, which they described as a dangerous invitation for foreign meddling, that five Shiite members of the Cabinet suspended their role in the government.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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