Even though it’s Thanksgiving, there is so much going on in Lebanon today that I thought I’d gather some news from around the web and from local Lebanese media to update you on what’s happening on this dramatic day.
I will add to this post if necessary as the day goes on.
CROWD AT FUNERAL ESTIMATED IN THE “HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS”
No official estimate yet (Update: Via al-Jazeera, Red Cross reports half a million), but Martyrs Square is still filling up as of 2:00 PM Lebanese time.
Pierre Gemayel’s funeral was underway Thursday at Beirut’s St. George Cathedral as hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered to bid farewell in a show of force against opponents led by Hizbullah and their Syrian backers.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Arab League chief Amr Mussa were among the dignitaries attending the 1:00 p.m. funeral service lead by Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir in a rare move.
Prominent Lebanese leaders and ambassadors packed the cathedral as the casket was placed on the altar along with the coffin of his bodyguard, Samir al-Shartouni.
Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hizbullah ally, surprised the mourners by showing up unexpectedly.
The protesters are nothing if not blunt:
Young men stamped on portraits of Lahoud and his Syrian and Iranian counterparts, Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the principal backers of Hizbullah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah.
“Nasrallah, come and see who is the majority” in Lebanon, chanted the crowd.
“We want only the army to bear weapons,” the mourners chanted, referring to Hizbullah’s persistent refusal to lay down its weapons in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions following the devastating summer war with Israel.
This should raise the spirits of the democrats. Whether it translates into political muscle remains to be seen.
HIZBULLAH CANCELS MARCHES
Showing that he has more than an ounce of common sense, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has cancelled street demonstrations planned for Thursday to avoid a confrontation with the hundreds of thousands of angry anti-Syrian Lebanese who will be in the streets paying their last respects to Minister Gemayel.
As I’ve said before, Nasrallah does not want a civil war – not when he is on the verge of getting what he wants without a messy, destructive sectarian conflict. While the atmospherics of the political situation may have changed, the reality is that the Sheik still holds the upper hand – as long as his bully boys have the guns to threaten the government and the population.
Strangely, Nasrallah has blamed Israel for the assassination. Given that Gemayel’s uncle, ex-President Bachir Gemeyal was a huge supporter of Israel during the civil war, it is doubtful too many Lebanese outside of the fanatics who follow him believe Nasrallah. It may prove that the assassination has thrown Nasrallah off his game slightly. Let’s hope the million or so people who flood the streets of Beirut today continue that process.
US-BRITAIN CONDEMN THE ASSASSINATION BUT FAIL TO MENTION SYRIA BY NAME
Both the US and Great Britain have issued strong official statements condemning the assassination and supporting Prime Minister Siniora’s government – except neither one specifically mentioned Syria as the probable perpetrator of the murders. (Bush and Bolton have both fingered Syria and Iran in off the cuff remarks but the State Department nixed any mention of Syria in the official communique.)
This is no accident, of course, Nothing can be said that might derail the coming ass kissing session with Assad as we seek his blessing to withdraw from Iraq without the Syrian President causing the country to descend into chaos in the meantime. Given that the thug has just cold bloodedly murdered a man committed to democracy and freedom and was opposed to the kind of Islamic fundamentalism embodied in Nasrallah’s Hizbullah, our State Department and the British Foreign Office may as well have spit on Pierre Gemayel’s grave.
SYRIA REJECTS TRIBUNAL
Not surprisingly, the Syrian Foreign Minister has announced that if any Syrians are indicted by the International Tribunal, they will not appear. He says that the Syrian justice system is perfectly capable and doesn’t need the assistance of any foreigners.
“Syria is 100 percent innocent from the crime and we don’t need to assure that,” he said, adding “if there were any Syrian who is involved in this crime, then he is a murderer and will be punished as criminals are penalized by the just Syrian judiciary.”
I think I’ll let that quote pass without comment.
LEBANESE GOVERNMENT HOLES UP IN GOVERNMENT BUILDING
In order to avoid the prospect of losing two more ministers which would cause his government to fall, From Beirut to the Beltway is reporting that Prime Minister Siniora has ordered his cabinet to bed down in the government building until the International Tribunal is approved:
After the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, March 14 cannot afford to lose any more ministers. If one more is killed or resigns, the cabinet will lose the quorum required by the constitution. For that, Siniora has reportedly turned the government building into temporary sleeping quarters for the remaining ministers, who will be barred from leaving the building until a session is held to approve the plan, possibly as early as Monday. After the funeral today, and if they all make it back to the Serail safely, it would require blowing up the government headquarters to stop the cabinet session form taking place.
At this point, blowing up the massive government building would be a shocker but not a total surprise. Anything is possible in Lebanon over the next few days.
MIDDLE EAST “EXPERTS” ON THE ASSASSINATION
Tony Badran has a revealing piece on what various Lebanese “experts” are saying about the assassination:
Helena Cobban: Syrians murder Lebanese Christian leader. Conclusion: Lebanese Christians are murderers who may massacre people.
Rami Khoury: Syrians murder Lebanese Christian leader. Conclusion: We must stop this “cycle of violence.”
Juan Cole: Syrians murder Lebanese Christian leader. Conclusion: The evil George Bush wants the Lebanese moderates to crush poor innocent Hezbollah.
Joshua Landis: Syrians murder Lebanese Christian leader. Conclusion: The US should make a concession to Syria to let Hezbollah run Lebanon.
And all agree: Syrians murder Lebanese Christian leader. Conclusion: This proves we should forget about the last time they murdered a Lebanese leader!
That about sums it up.
PICTURE OF THE DAY
Stay safe, kid. Carrying a sign like that in public is serious business in these times.
LIVE AUDIO OF EVENTS
The blog Beirut Spring has a link to an Arabic language broadcast of events in Martyrs Square. The crowd sounds restive with angry undertones. Some Lebanese blogs are reporting that after the funeral, the crowd will march to the Presidential Palace and demand the ouster of President Lahoud.
Even if Lahoud resigned, it wouldn’t solve any of Siniora’s problems. But it would be nice to see the toady kicked out.
BERRI EMERGING AS POSSIBLE KEY FIGURE
A surprise guest at the funeral today was Parliamentary Speaker and leader of the Amal Party Nabbi Berri. Amal is ostensibly allied with Hizbullah and Berri’s show of independence is not only incredibly brave but could be significant. (There is some confusion as to whether or not Hizbullah even bothered to send their own delegation to the funeral.)
Immediately after the cabinet approved the formation of the Tribunal, Berri made a statement that the action was constitutional despite the absence of the Shia ministers who had resigned over the previous weekend. This despite President Lahoud calling it “illegitimate” and Nasrallah referring to it as “illegal.” Berri did an about face when he got back from Iran earlier this week after 2 days of consultations with the mullahs when he called the action “unconstitutional.” But in the same statement, he has called on the Shia ministers to return to the cabinet and for the National Dialogue, which broke down over the issue of Shia representation in the cabinet, to reconvene.
Berri has also hinted that he would indeed convene Parliament to take up the approval of the Tribunal once the cabinet sends the measure along.
This means two things: First, Berri is a marked man now, in Assad’s crosshairs as well as probably some Sunni and Christian groups. Secondly, Berr’s independence could mean that he has tired of Hizbullah’s constant brinkmanship and wishes a political settlement.
If the latter, this could be hugely significant. They have a small representation in Parliament (12 seats out of 128) and Amal is much more secular oriented than Hizbullah. Berri himself is respected in some quarters outside of the Shia community. Does Berri have enough clout to broker some kind of deal? We’ll probably find out next week.
A MOST CURIOUS STORY
This story has been making the rounds of the blogs as well as appearing in Ya Libnan:
Kuwaiti Newspaper Alseyassah has reported that a SANA (Syrian Arab News Agency) editor has contacted a Lebanese pro-Syrian newspaper 55 minutes prior to the assassination of Lebanonâ€™s minister Pierre Gemayel inquiring about details of his murder.
The call took place at 3:05 pm Beirut local time. Alseyassah did not name the Lebanese newspaper to protect its identity.
The Alseyassah added that the Lebanese newspaper was extremely surprised about SANAâ€™s call which prompted the SANA reporter to call 10 minutes later and apologize for the original call.
This kind of story pops up every time there’s a tragedy of some kind. The bombing in Britain, the JFK assassination, even 9/11 have had similar stories reported. A cursory check into the facts however, reveals people are simply mistaken about the time frame. No one is lying. It’s just a symptom of what happens when great events occur.
Would I be surprised if the story were true? Not really. This assassination appeared well planned and the plot could have leaked out prior to its execution.
But I’m doubting it…
Check out Jim Hoft’s extensive coverage that includes some pretty dramatic pictures.
The blog Beirut Live has a picture taken from An Nahar’s window that’s extraordinarily impressive (click on the picture for a full screen view) and adds this:
This is our day. Not that of the March 14 coalition, nor that of the March 8 coalition! This is the day when Lebanon shouts to the criminals:
“Enough. Lebanon will not die today, it will not die tomorrow. No bombs or bullets from Israeli, Syrian or Iranian regimes will ever bring us down.”
It is time for all Lebanese, from all religions and all sides to join hands to uphold and save our bleeding Lebanon.
UPDATE II: HARIRI AND JUMBLAT THROW DOWN THE GAUNTLET TO HIZBULLAH
Two fiery speeeches to the hundreds of thousands gathered in Martyrs Square for Minister Gemayel’s funderal from March 14th leaders Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblat made it absolutely clear that the democrats still have a lot of fight left in them:
“They will not nail down our determination for life. They will not nail down our determination to refuse the culture of sorrow and death,” Jumblat told the hundreds of thousands massed in Martyrs Square near St. George Cathedral where the industry minister’s funeral service was held.
“They will not nail down our determination to keep the arms in the hands of the state, and our demands for the truth, justice and the international court,” he said.
He was alluding to the ruling majority’s insistence on an international tribunal to try the February 2005 assassins of five-time premier Rafik Hariri, and to the refusal of Syrian ally Hizbullah to lay down its arms in accordance with U.N. resolutions after its summer war with Israel.
Jumblat said the slain minister joined “the previous martyrs… who had refused … the regime of tutelage, killings and assassinations.”
Hariri told the crowd waving red-and-white Lebanese flags: “You are here for a new revolution to show the entire world that the sons of Rafik Hariri and the brothers of Pierre Gemayel are the majority in Lebanon.”
“They said that you are a virtual majority, but we are the reality and they are virtual.”
“National unity is stronger than their arms … and their terrorism.”
The slain minister’s father, Amine Gemayel then took the podium to call for a new Lebanon, without pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.
He hailed “the start of the second revolution for the independence of Lebanon, which should start at the top.”
This is a direct challenge to Nasrallah. He will probably answer it next week when he turns out his own bully boys for street demonstrations.
UPDATE III: THE DAY IN PHOTOS
MARCH 14TH PARLIAMENTARY LEADER SAAD HARIRI (CENTER). HE ALSO LOST HIS FATHER RAFIQ TO AN ASSASSINS BULLET. DRUZE LEADER WALID JUMBLAT (FAR LEFT) WHOSE FATHER WAS ASSASSINATED IN 1975 AND LEBANESE FORCES HEAD SAMIR GEAGEAS WHO SPENT 12 YEARS IN PRISON DURING THE OCCUPATION (RIGHT)
VIA ALLAH, HARIRI, GEMAYEL, AND GEAGEAS UNITED IN GRIEF
Abu Kais from BTHBW has plenty of video.
One thing you notice immediately. These are angry people. These are not the smiling, cheering reform-minded citizens we saw in the spring of 2005. These people seem to want blood and know where to go to get it.
I fear that unless passions cool between now and when Hizbullah takes the to the streets – possibly next week – clashes will be inevitable. Looking at the video, one sees sadness but also a fatalism that is very alarming, almost as if people have resigned themselves to violence.
Still with me? Good. This will probably be my last update for the day.
Beirut Spring informs us that Nasrallah never called Amin Gemayel to offer his condlences nor apparently were there any Hizbullah representatives at the funeral (I have been unable to identify a Muslim cleric in an excellent photo montage at Daily Star. He appeared to be in Shia garb.) Instead, Hizbullah media headlines the funeral “The Authorities take to the streets.”
Mustapha also informs us that there appeared to be heavy representation by the Free Patriotic Movement, Michel Aoun’s party who is allied with Hizbullah in Parliament. Given the attendance of Nabih Berri of the other major Hizbullah ally Amal, this would seem to isolate Nasrallah.
It doesn’t matter. He’s got the guns. At this point, he has the fate of Lebanon in his hands. It’s up to him whether their will be civil war or a return to the uneasy peace that existed prior to the cabinet crisis.