Murder of Lebanese Journalist Points to Rising Crisis

BEIRUT – The prominent anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir was killed in a car explosion in a Christian residential neighborhood of Beirut Thursday morning, in an attack that drew widespread condemnation.

The bomb was placed under the driver’s seat of Kassir’s car parked outside his house, and was likely to have been detonated by remote control. The bomb killed the journalist instantly and wounded a passerby.

Kassir, 45, was the most high-profile figure to be killed in Lebanon since the Feb. 14 bomb attack in which former prime minister Rafik Hariri and a top aide died. The assassination triggered a groundswell of popular anger against Damascus and Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government, eventually leading to its resignation and the end of Syria’s 29-year military presence in the country.

Anti-Syrian groups quickly blamed Damascus and its Lebanese allies, most notably Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, for Kassir’s murder.

"Samir Kassir was assassinated by the remnants of the security agencies that control the country and that is headed by Emile Lahoud," said leading opposition leader Walid Jumblatt. "As long as the serpent’s head is in Baabda [the location of the presidential palace], the assassinations will continue."

Lahoud promptly condemned the killing. An official from the ministry of interior in Damascus reportedly denied any Syrian involvement in the attack.

"A source at the information ministry strongly denounced some Lebanese media and political figures who rushed as usual to condemn Syria," the official Syrian news agency SANA reported.

A popular editorial writer for the leading Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper, Kassir was known for his relentless criticism of the Syrian regime and the control it exerted over its smaller neighbor.

His front-page editorials and virulent attacks on the Lebanese authorities earned him threats and intimidation from the security services, a ban from public television, and confiscation of his passport temporarily in March 2001.

Kassir, a political science professor at the Beirut-based University of St. Joseph, wrote several books on Lebanese and Arab politics and history, and was also one of the founding members of the political Democratic Left movement.

He played an active role in the demonstrations after Hariri’s killing and expressed hope that the events that marked Lebanese politics and society would reverberate throughout the Arab world. In a recent interview with this correspondent, he spoke of going to Damascus to assist Syrian political activists in promoting reform.

In his most recent editorial which appeared last Friday, Kassir criticized the flawed reform process the Syrian Ba’ath party had embarked upon.

"Reform for the Ba’athists does not mean accepting opposing views," he wrote. "The Ba’athist regime in Syria is behaving the same way it behaved in Lebanon, making blunder after blunder."

Emotions ran high on the streets of Beirut Thursday. People came to the scene of the crime to express anger and anguish.

Lebanese author Elias Khoury broke down in tears, hugging an equally distraught Elias Atallah, the leader of the Democratic Left. "It was Emile Lahoud, the head of the state, the security forces who killed him," Atallah said.

The murder marks a low-point in the worsening political environment in Lebanon, where the first parliamentary elections held since the Syrian military withdrawal got underway Sunday.

The rallying up to the elections has been marked by the disintegration of the anti-Syrian opposition movement.

The election is being held under a controversial electoral law devised in 2000 under heavy Syrian meddling. The law sets out large voting districts, which Christian politicians argue does not give adequate representation to Lebanon’s smaller communities.

The issue divided the opposition movement, with some parties calling for a boycott of the elections, and others benefiting from the law calling for the vote to go ahead.

The subsequent political wheeling and dealing brought unusual political bedfellows. Former general Aoun, who recently returned to Lebanon after 14 years in exile and has made a political career out of combating the Syrian presence in Lebanon, announced Wednesday his alliance with pro-Syrian MP Talal Arslan in several electoral districts. But he also called on his followers to boycott the elections held in Beirut.

Walid Jumblatt has allied himself with pro-Syrian groups in the Baabda-Aley voting district. Bahia Hariri, sister of the slain former premier, is running on the same electoral list (called Resistance, Liberation and Development) as a member of the Lebanese Ba’ath Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party in the south of Lebanon.

Lebanon’s elections "have been transformed into a competition of interests and personal rivalries," the influential Maronite Christian Bishops’ Council, presided over by patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, said in a statement Wednesday.

The political mudslinging and the fact that several politicians are running uncontested in certain districts have resulted in widespread apathy.

A mere 28 percent voted in the first round of elections held in Beirut May 29, and 30 percent are expected to vote in the south on Sunday.

The disappointing aftermath of the spring "independence uprising" has been seized upon by some analysts as testimony to Lebanon’s structural problems, which they say lie deeper than a Syrian political and military dominance.

"Syrian occupation was a symptom of deeper crises in the Lebanese political system," Sateh Noureddine and Laurie King-Irani wrote in a recent Middle East report analysis. "The celebrations of Syria’s departure in Martyrs’ Square rarely touched upon these crises, which center on questions of national identity, inter-communal conflict, accountability of war time atrocities, and nation-building."