At 2.13 pm on Tuesday 22 November, Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon’s industry minister and leader of the reactionary right-wing Kataeb (Phalange) party was assassinated by unidentified gunmen. The six gunshots which killed Gemayel massively ratcheted up fears of sharp polarisation between Lebanon’s many different ethnic and religious communities. Waves of fear have washed over large sections of the population as they remember with dread, the recent invasion by the Israeli regime and Lebanon’s fifteen year civil war which only drew to a close in 1990. Parts of people’s fears also come from the 30 year long presence of Syrian troops as well as the long history of political assassinations in Lebanon.
Socialists condemn the use of assassinations as a tactic to bring about fundamental political change. Politicians who are killed can be replaced by others who carry out the same repressive measures. In Lebanon such tactics are used to whip up sectarian tensions and fears of a civil war.
Right-wing politicians immediately blamed the Syrian regime for the assassination and implied that Hezbollah, the main component of the opposition to the government stood to gain by it because they want to overthrow the pro-western Siniora government. Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, and a member of the government commented "We believe the hands of Syria are all over the place". President Bush also rushed to condemn Syria and Iran for interfering in Lebanon.
But a CWI member living in Beirut explained that "the people I have spoken to don’t believe these claims and think that it is unlikely that the Syrian government or Hezbollah were involved. They feel that the assassination will be used by the government to rebuild its shattered support and try to undermine the opposition which is supported by the majority of the population now. This is true for particularly Shias, but also Druze, Sunni Muslims and Christians. The opposition made up of Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement and others had called for mass demonstrations starting on Thursday 24 November. An estimated two million were expected to march calling for new democratic parliamentary elections. This assassination represents an attempt to undercut those protests". The government has now made this a day of national morning and the whole Lebanese population has been called upon to attend Gemayel’s funeral.
Most Gemayel’s obituaries have attempted to portray him as a democrat and fighter for Lebanon’s unity. What a stomach turning, hypocritical distortion! Pierre Gemayel was a member of one of Lebanon’s political dynasties. His grandfather set up the Kataeb or Phalange party after attending the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and being inspired by the Nazi Party and the fascist regime in Germany. The Phalange, armed and trained by the rightwing Israeli government of the time, carried out the Sabra and Shatila massacre in September 1982 under the noses of the Israeli generals. Over 3000 Palestinians were butchered by this paramilitary outfit.
Despite the media propaganda, the assassination has taken a magnifying glass to the mood of crisis which has stalked the Lebanese government for weeks.
The main party in the coalition government is the March 14th grouping which takes its name from the mass movement (given the name the "Cedar Revolution") which demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. However, the self-appointed leaders of this movement who mainly came from Lebanon’s political elite manipulated the support for Syrian withdrawal to gain political power. Worse still as far as most Lebanese were concerned these politicians aligned the government much more closely with the Western imperialist powers. Many of these politicians are corrupt, right-wing ex-militia and members of Lebanon’s political elite, remade as "democratic" politicians.
However, the Israeli invasion changed the political situation completely in Lebanon. The country was devastated by the Israeli bombardment. However, the destruction of Lebanon not only tore apart the lives of thousands of Lebanese families, it also had huge political consequences. The March 14th cabinet members and their allies completely lost credibility as a result of being seen to do absolutely nothing apart from a ritual wringing of hands during the month long war. Most Lebanese saw them as being complicit in what was seen as a Western imperialist supported invasion of their country. While Hezbollah were part of the government, after the war they increasingly opposed the March 14th movement.
In marked contrast to this Hezbollah was able to stop the invasion in its tracks and inflicted a defeat on the Israeli regime. It was seen by the majority of the population as the legitimate national resistance organisation of Lebanon. After the war ended, Hezbollah moved swiftly to begin the reconstruction process and offered all families whose houses had been destroyed $10 000. In contrast senior government ministers sat on their fat, corrupt sweaty hands.
Hezbollah was first formed in 1982 in response to Israeli invasion of Lebanon at the time. Originally Hezbollah’s support came from the poor Shia working class while its ideology was based on Islamic teachings of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni. Since then, Hezbollah has adopted a more populist approach portraying itself as a defender of all sections of the Lebanese population. Nationalist more than Islamic language dominates the speeches of Hezbollah leaders. Particularly during the war, Hezbollah formed an alliance with Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (a populist organisation with support amongst the Christian population) and the Lebanese Communist Party. Hezbollah came out of the war massively strengthened with support across different communities in Lebanon.
The March 14th cabinet members of the government attempted to bolster their position after the war by taking up a campaign to set up an international tribunal to investigate the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. Hariri was the Prime Minister of Lebanon and in his later years became an opponent of the Syrian regime, calling for the withdrawal of its troops from the country. A UN sponsored investigation implicated members of the Syrian regime of being involved in this assassination. However, March 14th used this issue to try to undermine Hezbollah who it claims are the willing agents of the Syrian regime. They also used the issue to attempt to divert public attention from the rampant corruption in the political and government elite which lead to the disappearance of millions of dollars of aid which was supposed to rebuild peoples’ shattered lives.
Hezbollah and its allies such as the Free Patriotic movement, now referred to simply as "the opposition" in the country demanded new democratic elections. Parliamentary seats in Lebanon are in effect divided between different religious and ethnic communities and in reality are handed out to political parties led by mafia-style bosses who claim to represent particular communities and use their positions of power to hand out patronage. However, Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic movement, probably supported by a majority of the population at the moment, have little representation in parliament as a result of the undemocratic method of elections. In order to put pressure on the Prime Minister to call elections, six cabinet ministers linked to the opposition resigned from the government. Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic movement called for mass demonstrations on Thursday 24 November to protest against the government.
March 14th leaders and other right-wing politicians have attacked Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic movement for wanting to overthrow the government and democracy in the country. In one of his speeches, Nasrullah, the popular leader of Hezbollah referred to this and said that the opposition had the power to take over the country if they wanted but they were fighting for democratic elections. Nasrullah, in answering those who also claim Hezbollah wants to increase sectarian polarisation in the country, has explained that the opposition’s differences with the government are political ones and that now a majority of Shia, Druze, Sunni and Christian Lebanese support their demands for democratic elections, an end to corruption and end to the sectarian divide in the Lebanon.
While it will probably never be clear who assassinated Gemayel, it is not very likely at all that the Syrian regime organised it. The Syrian regime is now being courted by western imperialist powers, including the Bush regime, to help sort out the mess created by the occupation of Iraq. Syria had just reforged diplomatic links with the Iraqi regime. It would make no sense to carry out such an attack. This is especially the case since the Assad regime obviously hopes that the Western imperialist powers will reopen economic and trading links with Syria and end the regime’s pariah status in return for its cooperation on Iraq. Neither is it likely as some have suggested that Hezbollah could have carried out this attack. Given the massive support for them amongst the Lebanese population, this would be a suicidal mistake. There is a possibility that rogue elements in the Syrian regime may have carried out this attack because they want to sabotage the Assad regime’s closer relationship with western imperialist powers.
However, the question is who will benefit from this assassination. The March 14th politicians have launched a major propaganda campaign, supported by western governments, over Gemayel’s death and have whipped up fears that those responsible also want to drive the country into a civil war. This may have the temporary effect of increasing support for the government. It is possible that groups who want March 14th leaders to stay in power and to undercut the mass demonstrations called for by the opposition, carried out the assassination. Such groups could have come from the shadowy fringes of the Lebanese state apparatus or the far right of Lebanese politics. It is not even ruled out that the Israeli security services could have carried out such an assassination.
Conspiracy theories will fill the pages of the worlds’ press over the next few weeks about the assassination. The reality is that the people of Lebanon are faced with an increasingly unstable situation and the potential for clashes to develop between the different communities. If this instability worsens the possibility of a return to civil war cannot be ruled out although it is not the most likely immediate eventuality.
The Lebanese working class is the only section of society with the potential strength to stand against the slide into conflict. However, in order to answer the lies, distortions and divisive actions of right-wing reactionary groups and sectarian forces, Lebanese workers, young people and all of the oppressed need ideas which outline a different way of running society. Capitalism encourages and uses sectarian division to maintain its grip over society. A democratically planned socialist economy and society would end mass poverty and unemployment, conditions under which sectarian ideas can breed. Such a society would also be able to guarantee the rights of all oppressed minorities thus bringing genuine unity to society.
The most recent developments in Lebanon emphasise the urgent need to build an independent working class alternative which fights for these ideas within Lebanon and beyond.