Lebanon's Cabinet Ministers Wonder Who Could Be Next

  • Share
  • Read Later

Nicole Gemayel, sister of prominent anti-Syrian Christian politician Pierre Gemayel, mourns with friends and relatives on her brother's coffin.

The killing on Tuesday of industry minister and anti-Syrian legislator Pierre Gemayel is a stark reminder that Lebanon's politicians remain as vulnerable as ever despite an array of security precautions. Some spend most of their time in well-protected homes surrounded by sealed-off streets; others rely on armed bodyguards or have switched smoked-glass limousines for nondescript vehicles or armor-plated SUVs. Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni legislator from Tripoli and a member of the anti-Syrian parliamentary bloc, has lived under the threat of assassination for more than two years. "I take precautions," he says in an interview with TIME. "We have so many people calling us all the time saying be careful, not to be loud."

In September 2004, Ahdab broke a taboo by publicly announcing that he had received anonymous death threats intended to pressure him into voting for a controversial three-year extension of the presidency of the pro-Syrian incumbent, Emile Lahoud. Ahdab ignored the threats and voted against the extension. He was not the only politician under pressure. Then-Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was allegedly directly threatened by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to support Lahoud's extension, despite his deep opposition to the move.

Lahoud won his extra three years anyway, setting Lebanon on a perilous path of confrontation between allies of Syria and its opponents that led to Hariri's murder in a massive bomb blast five months later. And two years on, that confrontation appears to still be taking a deadly toll. Gemayel's murder has brought Lebanon's Western-backed government dangerously close to collapse. Six pro-Syrian Shi'ite ministers quit the 24-member coalition cabinet a week ago after their bid for extra seats that would give them a veto-wielding one-third stake in the government was rebuffed. Now, following Gemayel's murder, it will take the resignation — or death — of two more ministers to bring down the government, which occurs legally when it loses more than one third of its ministers.

"Its more than ever obvious that they are trying to reduce the majority in the government either by another resignation or assassination," says Ahdab. The ministerial resignations came on the eve of a cabinet discussion to endorse draft United Nations statutes for the creation of an international tribunal to judge Hariri's assassins. With Damascus widely blamed for the killing, Ahdab says the resignations of the pro-Syrian ministers were carefully timed. "They [quit] so they didn't have to ratify what came from the U.N.," he says.

The statutes have been endorsed by the depleted government and the U.N. Security Council greenlighted the final version on Tuesday. The resolution now has to be passed by the Lebanese government and ratified by parliament before taking effect. Then there are other potential blocks to the adoption of the resolution: Nabih Berri, the Speaker of parliament and an ally of Hizballah, could delay calling a session to vote on the resolution, which requires a simple majority to pass. Then again, President Lahoud could freeze passage by simply refusing to sign the bill.

With the government under threat, Ahdab says it is a race to pass the international tribunal before another minister is killed. "We have to move very quickly in the government while we still have the two-thirds majority," he says, adding that the establishment of the international tribunal should help "put a limit" on the assassinations and help stabilize the country.

Still, Ahdab, a multi-lingual businessman from a prominent Tripoli family, believes the root of Lebanon's political crisis lies in a fundamental disagreement over the future identity of Lebanon. Does Lebanon want to remain a pluralistic, open society or join the Syrian-Iranian alliance of anti-Western states? he asks. "An agreement is needed on what kind of Lebanon we want for the future," he says. Until that happens, Ahdab and his political colleagues will continue to remain vigilant and wary of the threat that lurks in Lebanon's darker corners.