Uneasy silence in Lebanon after killing

November 23, 2006|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BIKFAYA, LEBANON -- The mourners stood for hours yesterday on a slow-creeping line, crushed together in this tiny village perched high above the Mediterranean Sea. Praying and weeping quietly, they doggedly awaited a chance to say farewell to the body of Pierre Gemayel, the Christian Cabinet minister whose assassination has paralyzed a fragile nation.

The 34-year-old industry minister and heir to a Christian political dynasty, Gemayel was the latest critic of Syria to be killed in the streets of Beirut. He will be buried today, and his former political allies have urged Lebanese to turn out en masse.

Outside Gemayel's ancestral home, nuns stood silent, shifting their weight in the thin winter sun. Pale-faced teen-aged girls shuffled along, shoulder to shoulder with aging men. Politicians in expensive suits, flanked by beefy guards, shoved their way through the crowd without apology.

On the eve of Gemayel's funeral, an uneasy silence suffused the empty streets of the country. There was a sense of suspension, of a perilous political struggle shot in freeze-frame. The yawning crisis and refreshed communal hatreds seemed to pause only long enough to allow the burial of one of Lebanon's youngest politicians.

"This is traditional in Lebanon; it's some kind of respect," said Maroun Zeidan, a 28-year-old lawyer and member of Gemayel's Phalangist party who stood weeping in the courtyard of Gemayel's home. "First we bury the body, and then we look at our differences."

There is a Lebanese saying that translates, loosely, into: "They kill a man, then march in his funeral." If anything, Lebanon's differences have been deepened by Gemayel's death.

Yesterday was Lebanon's Independence Day, a holiday marking the break from French control. But instead of parties and military parades, daybreak illuminated a landscape of shuttered shops and people lurking inside their homes.

Before Gemayel was killed, Hezbollah and its allies had mounted a campaign to seize a greater share of power in the government. The Shiite ministers and their allies had resigned from the Cabinet. Hezbollah's charismatic leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, told his vast army of followers that the government was illegitimate and repeatedly threatened to use massive demonstrations to force the anti-Syria bloc out of power.

The street protests remain a severe threat; both sides fear they could degenerate into street fights. But now it is the slain Gemayel's anti-Syria allies who will hold a massive demonstration. The funeral march is set for today.

Grief-stricken Amin Gemayel, former president and father of the slain minister, had wanted to bury his son the day after his death, members of his party said. But Saad Hariri, the head of the ruling parliamentary bloc, argued that the younger Gemayel's death belonged to all of Lebanon and that he should be given a patriotic funeral.

There were hints here yesterday that Gemayel's allies might use his funeral to demand the resignation of Syria-backed president Emile Lahoud.

Hewing to decency, Hezbollah and its allies quieted their criticism in the hours after Gemayel was gunned down. But yesterday, a political aide to Nasrallah appeared to hint that the government itself, and not Syria, may have had a role in the minister's death.

"We were about to take to the streets. They were facing a crisis. They needed blood to get some oxygen," Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Nasrallah, told the party's Al Manar television station yesterday. "This country is at the edge of an abyss. Some people are blowing fire in the air."

Gemayel's assassination was expected to delay Hezbollah's street demonstrations.

But the threat of unrest from other quarters remained. Prominent members of the government accused Syria of choreographing the slaying, and issued warnings about continuing violence.

If one more Cabinet minister leaves his post, either by death or resignation, the government automatically loses its right to rule. Some analysts believe Gemayel's assassination is the opening shot in a campaign to derail the Cabinet, minister by minister.

"The Syrian regime will continue with the assassinations," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told reporters at his home in the Chouf mountains. "I expect more assassinations."

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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