The assassination of Pierre Gemayel

Whose interests are served?


Hezbollah is trying to bring down the Government of Lebanon, at the behest of its allies, Syria and Iran, and all those who support freedom and democracy should rally to the Government’s defence.  This is the story we have been hearing from the British press over the past few weeks.  The assassination of Industry Minister, Pierre Gemayel, a Maronite Christian, on 21 November 2006, added impetus to the story, the general assumption being that this act was part of the ongoing “coup” attempt.  Assassinate two more Ministers, we were told, and the Government will fall.


At a press conference in Hawaii, President Bush responded to Gemayel’s assassination as follows [1]:


“Today we saw again the vicious face of those who oppose freedom. We strongly condemn the assassination today in Lebanon of Pierre Gemayel, who was a minister in the government of Prime Minister Siniora. We support the Siniora government and its democracy, and we support the Lebanese people's desire to live in peace. And we support their efforts to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies, to foment instability and violence in that important country.”


(Lest you take seriously George Bush’s “support the Lebanese people's desire to live in peace”, remember that when, a few months ago, Israel’s Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz, promised to “turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years” [2], George Bush was happy to allow him time to do it, using armament supplied by the US and largely paid for by US tax dollars.  And well over a thousand Lebanese civilians died as a result.)


For once, Prime Minister Blair did not quite echo his master’s voice - he didn’t specifically point the finger at Syria for Gemayel’s assassination.  At a press conference with the Greek Prime Minister in Downing Street, he merely said [3]:


“We condemn this murder utterly. It is completely without any justification at all. We need to do everything we can, particularly at this moment, to protect democracy in Lebanon and the premiership of Prime Minister Siniora.”


(Blair’s failure to indict Syria must be related to the diplomatic footsie going on with Syria, which included an exploratory mission to Damascus by his Foreign Policy adviser, Nigel Sheinwald.  Summary indictment of Syria without evidence in the manner of George Bush might have provoked Syria into terminating the footsie.)


Government of national unity

So what is Hezbollah up to?  For months, Hezbollah and its allies have been seeking a more broadly based Lebanese government - a government of national unity.  Failing that, they want a general election.  Neither of these is an inherently anti-democratic objective.


The present Government, with Fouad Siniora as Prime Minister, is dominated by the March 14 alliance led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister who was assassinated on 14 February 2005, an act that was widely blamed on Syria.  This alliance takes its name from the very large anti-Syrian demonstration that took place a month later on 14 March 2005.  It is an alliance of Hariri’s own mainly Sunni Future Movement, plus Christian elements and Druze led by Walid Jumblatt.  The alliance won 72 seats in the 128-seat Chamber of Deputies in the national election a few months later.  The dominance of the March 14 alliance gives the Government its pro-Western, anti-Syrian flavour.


The remaining seats were won by the mainly Shiite Resistance and Development Bloc, which won 35 seats (of which Hezbollah won 14 and Amal 15), and by the Christian Aoun alliance led by Michel Aoun, which won 21 seats (of which Aoun’s own Free Patriotic Movement won 14).  For the first time, Hezbollah opted to go into government and, together with its Shiite allies, it got 5 Ministries (of which Hezbollah got 2).  The Aoun alliance is not represented in government.


Since the Government was formed in July 2005, Hezbollah has entered into a “memorandum of understanding” with Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (see [4] for English translation) and the alliance seems to have survived Israel’s military assault in the summer.


Hezbollah is now proposing that the base of the government be broadened to bring in Aoun’s alliance.  Since consensus is the stuff of politics in Lebanon, this is not an unreasonable demand.


Public support

Furthermore, there seems to be widespread public support in Lebanon for creating a national unity government or, failing that, holding a national election.  An opinion poll conducted on 23-26 September 2006 by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information produced the following results [5]:


1)  Asked Do you support the formation of a national unity government?  Overall 70% said YES, with a majority in the two largest sects (Christian 71%, Shiite 97%) and a substantial minority in the other two (Sunni 49%, Druze 39%).


2) Asked Do you support holding an early election?  Overall 68% said YES, again with a majority in the two largest sects (Christian 70%, Shiite 94%) and a substantial minority in the other two (Sunni 46%, Druze 35%).


A few weeks later, on 19-31 October 2006, the Beirut Centre for Research and Information carried out a poll of voting intentions [6].  This suggested that, in a national election, Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement and their allies, would beat the March 14 alliance, which has a dominant position in the present government.  The poll predicts a 58% to 42% victory in terms of votes, which the polling organisation says could translate into as many as 75 seats for the Hezbollah/Free Patriotic Movement bloc.


Such a result would produce a dramatic shift in the orientation of the Lebanese Government that would not please the US.


Less amenable Government

Hezbollah and its allies are making reasonable demands, which are not in any sense anti-democratic, and which appear to have the support of a considerable majority of the Lebanese people.


So, why are the US/UK and others painting these reasonable Hezbollah demands as an attack on “freedom and democracy” driven by sinister foreign influences?  Simple, they fear - and with good reason - that a government of national unity, or a government formed after a general election, would be less amenable to their wishes, because it would contain a larger group of Ministers allied with Hezbollah, than the current Government.


What is more, Hezbollah and Aoun and their allies have 56 out of the 128 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, that is, over 40%.  So a government of national unity representative of the Chamber would give the two groups over a third of the Ministers.  This is a crucial point because Article 65(5) of the Lebanese Constitution says [7]:


“The legal quorum for a Council [of Ministers] meeting is a majority of two thirds of its members. It makes its decisions by consensus. If that is not possible, it makes its decisions by vote of the majority of attending members. Basic national issues require the approval of two thirds of the members of the Council named in the Decree forming the Cabinet.”


So, a group made up of a third plus one of the Ministers, acting together, can block any decisions on “basic national issues” to which it is opposed.  Article 65(5) defines these issues: examples are “the amendment of the constitution”, “the declaration of a state of emergency and its termination”, “war and peace”, “international agreements and treaties”, and “the annual government budget”.


One matter that would presumably fit into the “international agreements and treaties” category is an agreement that the UN should establish an international tribunal to try people suspected of the assassination of former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, in February 2005, and later assassinations.  These assassinations are still under investigation by a UN Commission (and that of Pierre Gemayel has been added to the list).


If we are to believe the British media, it was the question of setting up a UN tribunal that sparked the current crisis, because Hezbollah and its allies, being pro-Syria, don’t want a UN tribunal set up - because they want to protect the guilty men.  I can’t say for sure what Hezbollah’s attitude to the tribunal is, but Associated Press reported on 13 November 2006 [8]:


“The anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon has charged that Syria is behind the opposition to the tribunal because it seeks to avoid the prosecution of the Syrians implicated in Hariri's killing by a U.N. inquiry. Hezbollah officials have denied they are opposed to a U.N. tribunal and Aoun called the accusation ‘a lie’.”


Legitimate government?

When negotiations to form a government of national unity failed, 5 Ministers from Hezbollah and Amal resigned from the Government on 11 November 2006, which meant that there were no Shiites Ministers left in the Government.  Another Minister, a Christian, Yacoub Sarraf, resigned two days later, leaving the Government with 18 of its original 24 Ministers, that is, 2 more than a quorum (since reduced to 17 by the assassination of Pierre Gemayel).


On 13 November 2006, the weakened Government approved the principle of having a UN Tribunal.  But, the legitimacy of the Government’s decision was questioned by opposition figures, given its lack of Shiite Ministers.  The Associated Press report cited above [8] summarised the criticism as follows:


“Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud [who was elected by the previous Chamber of Deputies] said Sunday that Saniora's government was no longer legitimate because the constitution requires that ‘all sects should be justly represented in the Cabinet’. The constitution recognizes 18 religion-based communities and most of them are represented in a full Cabinet by at least one minister. Half the ministers have to be Christian and half Muslim.


“Lahoud said all decisions taken by the Cabinet, including Monday's, were ‘null and void."


“Michel Aoun, the leader of a Christian faction allied with Hezbollah, agreed. ‘The government has lost its legitimacy and its decision today to approve the draft document ... is meaningless’.


“Environment Minister Yaacoub Sarraf, a Christian minister allied with the president, resigned shortly before the Cabinet meeting, citing similar objections. ‘I don't see myself belonging to any constitutional authority in which an entire sect is absent’, Sarraf wrote in his letter of resignation.”


Article 95(3) of the Constitution requires that [7]:


“The confessional groups are to be represented in a just and equitable fashion in the formation of the Cabinet.”


So, President Lahoud’s assertion that, without any Shiite Ministers, the Government is no longer legitimate has got some merit to it.  Originally, the Government had 12 Christian Ministers (5 Maronite, 3 Greek Orthodox, 2 Greek Catholic, 1 Armenian Orthodox and 1 Protestant) and 12 Muslim Ministers (5 Sunni, 5 Shiite and 2 Druze).  With the resignation of 6 Ministers, and the assassination of another, it now has 10 Christian and 7 Muslim, none of them Shiite.


The Government is now operating without the consent of the Shiite minority, which is arguably contrary to the Constitution.


Shiites underrepresented

Confessionalism is at the heart of the Lebanese system of governance (see Appendix below).  Under the (unwritten) National Pact of 1943, the President of the Republic has to be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the President (Speaker) of the Chamber of Deputies a Shiite Muslim.  50% of the 128 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are allocated to Christians, and 50% to Muslims, and those allocations are further sub-divided for Christian and Muslim sects (18 in all).  Thus, for example, 34 seats are reserved for Maronite Christians, 14 for Greek Orthodox Christians (and 14 for other Christian sects), 27 for Sunni Muslims, 27 for Shiite Muslims, 8 for Druze and 2 for Alawites.


The proportions of seats allocated to each sect don’t correspond to their proportions in the electorate today.  But it’s impossible to say by how much they diverge since there hasn’t been a national census since 1932.  Then Christians were in a majority, and they originally were allocated 55% of the seats.  This was reduced to 50% by the Ta’if Accord in 1989, which was the basis for ending the civil war.  Today, it is generally believed that the Christian population is less than 40%.


On the other hand, it is generally believed that the Shiites are substantially underrepresented in the Chamber of Deputies, where they have 27 out of the 128 seats, that is, a little over 20%.  Some people believe that they are more numerous than Christians.  There is little doubt that to match their share of the electorate they should have over a third of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies.  And if this was reflected in the Government, as it should be, then Hezbollah and its Shiite allies would, most likely, have a blocking third on their own.


Why lavish praise?

George Bush is forever lavishing praise on the so-called Cedar revolution, which resulted from the assassination of Rafik Hariri.  As he told Prime Minister Siniora at the White House on 18 April 2006 [9]:


“We took great joy in seeing the Cedar Revolution. We understand that the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the street to express their desire to be free required courage, and we support the desire of the people to have a government responsive to their needs and a government that is free, truly free.”


Strange how in this blether about free, responsive government he appears not to have noticed the unfairness in the electoral system towards Shiites.  It’s a pound to a penny that he would noticed had the disadvantaged party been favourably disposed towards Washington - then he would have been vociferous in his demands that the Lebanese electoral system be “reformed” and “modernised”.


The plain fact is that Bush was ecstatic about the Lebanese election last year, not because it was free and fair, but because it produced the right result.  When a majority of Palestinians dared to vote for Hamas in January 2006, there was no rejoicing from Bush about the free and fair elections - and the Palestinians were subjected to collective punishment for producing the wrong result.


When the democratically elected Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, dared to condemn the Israeli attack on Lebanon as “aggression” [10], Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee (and anti-Iraq war presidential candidate in 2004) went so far as to call him an anti-Semite, and said [11]:


"We don't need to spend $200 and $300 and $500 billion bringing democracy to Iraq to turn it over to people who believe that Israel doesn't have a right to defend itself and who refuse to condemn Hezbollah."


The exercise of democracy doesn’t get a seal of approval from either party in Washington unless it produces a government that is friendly to the US.


Whose interests are served?

The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today on 25 November 2006, a few days after Pierre Gemayel’s assassination.  He said [12]:


"A few weeks ago the White House took the unprecedented step of saying that Syria and Iran, acting through Hezbollah, were on the verge of staging a coup d'etat against the democratically elected government of Lebanon, and I have to say that this assassination of Pierre Gemayel might well be the first shot in that coup."


If you are trying to identify who is responsible for an assassination, it is common sense to ask whose interests are served by it.  The interests of Hezbollah and its allies inside Lebanon certainly were not served.  Prior to the assassination, they seemed to be on course to get a government of national unity in which they would have a blocking third.  If this was achieved, the resulting Government would be less slavish towards the West.


Central to this initiative is Hezbollah’s pact with Michel Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement.  If you wanted to stop the initiative in its tracks, you could do worse than assassinate a Christian Minister, and blame it on Hezbollah and its allies.  That could be expected to undermine Christian support for Aoun, if he maintained his pact with Hezbollah.  It could also be expected to re-create the anti-Syrian atmosphere that was prevalent after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and thereby boost popular support for the March 14 alliance at the expense of Hezbollah and its allies.


The interests of the US and Israel were served by the assassination of Pierre Gemayel.  The interests of Hezbollah and its allies were damaged.  How much remains to be seen.


Likewise, the interests of the US and Israel were served by the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the interests of Syria were damaged.  As a result, within 6 months, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and a pro-Western, anti-Syrian Government came to power in Lebanon.  Could it be that when Hezbollah and its allies were about to rein in its pro-Western tendency that another assassination was arranged with the objective of stopping it?



Appendix: The Lebanese system of governance


During World War I, Britain promised to recognise an Arab state in the Middle East, in exchange for Arab assistance in conquering the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire.  But in1918-19, Britain reneged on its promise.


During the war, Britain had made a conflicting agreement - the Sykes-Picot Agreement - with the French for joint control of the Middle East (and another with the Zionist movement for the establishment of a Jewish colony in Palestine).  So, instead of the promised Arab state, the Britain and France Balkanised the Middle East into a series of states under their control.


France established a military government over Syria in 1920.  The area occupied included Mount Lebanon, which had been a semi-autonomous district within the Ottoman Empire with a mainly Maronite Christian population.  For its own imperial reasons, France extended Mount Lebanon to include territory that had formerly belonged to the province of Damascus to form what they called Grand Liban (Greater Lebanon), which later became the Republic of Lebanon.  In 1922, the League of Nations recognised France’s redrawing of the boundary by granting it separate mandates to rule Syria and Lebanon.


The people in the territory added by France to Mount Lebanon were mainly Muslim, and the resulting state contained approximately equal numbers of Christians, mainly Maronites, and Muslims, many of whom neither wanted to be ruled by France, nor to be in an autonomous Lebanon, but to be in a larger Syrian or Arab state. 


In 1943, with independence from France in the offing, a National Pact was drawn up, which has been central to Lebanon’s system of government up to the present day.  This unwritten document was the product of a series of consultations between Bechara al-Khoury, a Maronite, and Riad al-Solh, a Sunni, who became the first President and Prime Minister of Lebanon, respectively.  The importance of the Pact today is evident from Lebanon’s written Constitution, which says in its preamble [7]:


“There is no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the 'pact of communal coexistence'.”


The key points in the pact are:-


1) Christians were to accept Lebanon’s “Arab face” - and its obligations to co-operate with the family of Arab states - and promise to resist seeking help or interference from the West.


2) In return, Muslims were to accept the legitimacy of Lebanon in its current borders, and renounce any intention of seeking a union with other Arab states.


3) Public offices were divided proportionately among the sects according to the 1932 census.


4) Seats in the Chamber of Deputies were allocated to Christians and Muslims in a ratio of 6 to 5, reflecting the 1932 census.


5) The Lebanese President was to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the President (Speaker) of the Chamber of Deputies was to be a Shiite Muslim and his Deputy a Greek Orthodox Christian.


There was no provision made in the National Pact for altering any of this to reflect demographic changes.  Indeed, so sensitive is the issue within Lebanon that there hasn’t been a national census since 1932.  The fact that the political system had not been changed to reflect demographic changes, in particular, that the Christian proportion of the population was believed to have fallen well below 50%, was a factor that led to civil war breaking out in the mid 70s.


These rules, with small modifications, are still central to the governance of Lebanon today.  The modifications were the result of the National Reconciliation Charter (aka the Ta’if Accord), which was agreed at Ta’if in Saudi Arabia in 1989 and formed the basis for ending the civil war.  These modifications included changing the allocation of seats in the Chamber of Deputies so that Christians and Muslims each had 64 seats in a 128-seat Chamber, reflecting what was believed to be the changed demography.  Another modification was the shifting of power from the office of the President (who is always a Maronite Christian) to the office of the Prime Minister (who is always a Sunni Muslim).


More fundamentally, the Ta’if Accord declared:


“Abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective.”


and specified that a national council be established to work out a phased plan to bring about its abolition.  This “fundamental national objective” was written into the Lebanese Constitution (in Article 95) but it doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond that.


Today, the political system is still wholly confessional, so much so that a quota of seats in the Chamber of Deputies is allocated to each of 18 officially recognised sects, with the overriding rule that 64 must go to members of Christian sects and 64 to Muslim, including Druze.  Nationally, the 64 Christian seats are allocated as follows: Maronite 34, Greek Orthodox 14, Greek Catholic 8, Armenian Orthodox 5, Armenian Catholic 1, Protestant 1 and Others 1; and the 64 Muslim seats are allocated as follows: Sunni 27, Shiite 27, Druze 8 and Alawite 2.


(In order to elect individuals from the appropriate sect to take up the seats allocated to that sect, these allocations are sub-divided into allocations per electoral district.  However, individuals are elected by universal suffrage, not just by members of their sect.)


Does the proportion of seats allocated to each sect reflect their proportion of the electorate today?  Definitely not, but since there has been no national consensus since 1932, it is impossible to say with any accuracy how much they diverge.


However, it is generally believed that, whereas Christians have 50% of the seats reserved for them, today only 40% or so of the population is Christian, which, if true, means that they are overrepresented by a quarter.  By contrast, it is generally believed that Shiites are substantially underrepresented in the Chamber of Deputies, where they have 27 out of the 128 seats, that is, a little over 20%.  Some people believe that they are the more numerous than Christians. 




David Morrison

30 November 2006

Labour & Trade Union Review












[10]  See