Lebanon Buries a Dream

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NASSER NASSER / AP

Lebanese mourners carry the coffin of Pierre Gemayel, wrapped in the flag of his Phalange Party during his funeral procession in Beirut, Nov. 23, 2006.

The rituals of martyrdom are sadly familiar to the Lebanese: Barely hours after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, billboard-sized posters with his portrait began appearing, as if, like obituary editors at a newspaper, Lebanese political parties keep the obligatory martyr poster of their leaders ready for the inevitable.

Thursday's funeral for Gemayel, one of Lebanon's most prominent Christian politicians, was burdened by more than a little bit of déjà vu. Gemayel is the latest of the country's anti-Syrian leaders to have died in a spate of assassinations which began last February with the car-bomb killing of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. As if in a repeat performance of the demonstrations that followed the Hariri funeral, hundreds of thousands of protestors filled central Beirut waving Lebanese flags and carrying catchy anti-Syrian slogans written in English. "Syria'l Killing Regime: Enough," read one.

But to a foreign observer, there was something startling about Friday's medieval pageantry. Inside the Maronite Catholic Cathedral of St. George, Lebanon's great and good gathered with their armed entourages in tow, like feudal barons reaffirming alliances over the body of a fallen comrade. Amid the burning incense and chants in arcane Assyrian, bishops stood beside generals, cowled monks hovered near women wearing black suits and sunglasses, in an epic panorama of old fashioned power politics.

In times of crisis, the Lebanese fall back on they institutions they know and trust — family, tribe, sect. And the anti-Syrian coalition is running scared. One priest captured the mood when his homily referred to the Crucifixion of Christ as a reminder that "we are all sheep waiting to be slaughtered." The day's events provided ample evidence that the modern Lebanese state — at the best of times a fragile French colonial bequest — is in crisis. The President of the Republic, the pro-Syrian Christian Emile Lahoud, was conspicuously absent from the funeral. Though the Lebanese Army and security services were out in force all over Beirut, individual bodyguards representing nothing more than the scion of some powerful family could be seen braying orders to gray-haired police generals. Even Gemayel's casket showed signs of schizophrenia — half-draped in the Lebanese cedar tree flag, half-covered by the flag of the Phalange, the Christian party he led.

A weakened Lebanese state is not, of course, what Gemayel's supporters and the other allies of anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fouad Siniora want. Their efforts after the Hariri assassination pushed the Syrian army out of Lebanon, ending an occupation that began in 1976. And they hope that the United Nations' investigations into the assassinations that have plagued Lebanon will remove what they see as the dread hand of Syria's intelligence services from its hold on Lebanese affairs. Speakers at today's funeral called on protestors to remain in Beirut's Martyr's Square until the establishment of just such a UN tribunal.

But the pro- and anti- Syrian divide in Lebanon has taken on a sectarian tone, which bodes ill for a country that is an amalgam of rival religious groups with a history of civil strife. Though the anti-Syrian Siniora government is backed by a coalition of Sunni Muslims, Druze Muslims, and many Christians, Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslims, the country's largest sect, have long looked to Syria for protection and patronage. Syria supplies Hizballah, the largest Shi'ite party, with money and weapons that it uses to fight Israel. Hizballah suspects Siniora's anti-Syrian crusade to be a cover for collaborating with Israel and the United States to disarm it. There was not a Shi'ite banner or headscarf in sight in the crowd outside the Gemayel funeral.

But there will be plenty in Beirut soon. Hizballah has promised its own demonstrations, aimed at bringing down Sinoira's government and replacing it with a government of "National Unity" in which they are better represented, as a reward for their so called "Divine Victory" against Israel this summer. The prospect of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations paralyzing the country has each side declaring that its intentions are peaceful, but preparing for the opposite.

"We are ready for them," said an official in Gemayel's Phalangist party. "We don't have weapons, and rockets and artillery like they do. But when went through a 15-year civil war and we know how to fight. We don't want to. But we are ready to."