Lebanese Warily Await Their Uncertain Future

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 23, 2006

BEIRUT, Nov. 22 -- The neighborhood of Ain Rummaneh was quiet Wednesday, its shops shuttered and streets empty a day after the assassination of an anti-Syrian politician from one of Lebanon's most prominent Christian families. Nayef Mazraani took a break from washing his car and pointed down a shaded street.

There, he said, was where Lebanon's civil war began in 1975, when Christian militiamen massacred 27 Palestinians on a bus after an attack on a church. He gestured in another direction. There, he said, was that war's front line, which remains a barrier of sorts between two Beiruts and two Lebanons, pulling ever further apart.

"The war has never stopped," he said. "It started here, in 1975, in Ain Rummaneh, and until now, it hasn't finished."

These days are dramatic in Lebanon and, fitting the occasion, one phrase is heard often: civil war. But in the place where the 15-year conflict started, on a day meant to mark Lebanon's independence, the conversations were more nuanced and, in some ways, more dire.

There was the pessimism that runs deep, the fear of sectarianism coupled with the loyalty it still inspires, the resentment of foreign influence and the worry that Lebanese will never transcend the politics that seem to inspire perpetual crisis.

More bluntly, there was the question: Can Lebanon, an awkward legacy of French colonial ambition, ever find peace?

"We keep thinking there will be, even though we were born into war," said Elie Ghusn, a pharmacist.

Beirut was an unsettled city as it prepared for the funeral Thursday of Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year-old industry minister of the right-wing Phalangist Party and son of a former president, who was killed Tuesday in a hail of gunfire on a busy suburban Beirut street.

Cars equipped with speakers plied the roads, urging Lebanese to attend, and ads on a television station loyal to Gemayel's allies offered a ride to anyone who wanted one, from anywhere in the country. Overnight, posters with his portrait went up: "We will not forget," they read, sprinkled amid similar tributes to other anti-Syrian figures killed since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005. In Gemayel's home town of Bikfaya, hundreds paid respects to his father and family.

Within hours of the assassination, political figures maneuvered for leverage in one of Lebanon's biggest crises in a generation.

As with the deaths of Hariri and others, Gemayel's allies blamed his killing on Syria -- a charge it officially denied -- and pressed for government approval for an international tribunal to try suspects in Hariri's killing. In a byzantine legislative process, that sanction would require the consent of Syrian allies in the government -- the president and the parliament speaker, whose intentions remain opaque. That suggests a stalemate might persist for days, even weeks.

Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement now finding itself on the defensive, appeared to postpone plans for protests designed to topple the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who is backed by the United States and France. Its television station aired suggestions that Christian rivals of Gemayel, not Syria, might be behind his killing.

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