Another assassination roils Lebanon

Antoine Ghanem in January 2006.
Antoine Ghanem in January 2006. Mahmoud Tawil / AP

CAIRO, Egypt — The car-bomb assassination Wednesday of an anti-Syrian Christian legislator in Beirut is likely to raise tensions in Lebanon just days before political factions there are scheduled to meet to decide who will succeed the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud.

Several anti-Syrian politicians who support the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora have taken refuge in Cairo in recent weeks, fearful that assassinations such as Wednesday's of Christian Phalangist Antoine Ghanem would undercut their majority in the crucial parliamentary vote.

Ghanem's death reduced the anti-Syrian faction to 68 seats in the 128-seat parliament, which is due to convene next Tuesday to select Lahoud's successor.

"We've all received death threats," said Ammar Houry, a member of the majority bloc in parliament. "Our group came to Cairo in an attempt to decrease the dangers in the period preceding the presidential elections."

Houry has been living in Cairo with his wife since June, when another anti-Syrian legislator, Walid Eido, was killed.

Ghanem, 64, was the eighth anti-Syrian legislator to die in a bombing since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Footage aired on Lebanese television Wednesday showed smoking car wrecks and bloodstained bodies being carried away by hospital workers. Seven other people were killed and 19 injured, authorities said.

Saniora's U.S-backed government and the opposition, which is allied with Iran and Syria and led by the Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, have been locked in a struggle over how to choose Lahoud's successor.

Saniora's group, known as the March 14 coalition, insists that the president be selected by majority vote if there's no consensus candidate. The opposition has called for the selection to be by two-thirds majority.

"They basically want us to give them the veto right," Houry said disdainfully. "The Lebanese Constitution is clear on this point: Ten days before the end of the presidential term, parliament must elect a president. And this is what will happen if the opposition stays on its position."

Lahoud, whose term ends Nov. 25, has threatened to hand over power to army chief Michel Suleiman if the political factions fail to reach an agreement. The president in Lebanon ratifies treaties and has the authority to veto legislation.

"Things could get very ugly here," political analyst and Hezbollah expert Amal Saad Ghorayeb said in a telephone interview. "If March 14 insists on shoving one of their candidates into the opposition's face, the opposition won't attend. They'll boycott the elections."

Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Rahal said in a phone interview that a president selected by simple majority "would be an illegitimate president."

"Why should we acknowledge him?" Rahal said.

An Egyptian diplomat who recently returned from Lebanon said the atmosphere there was "feverish" as foreign envoys arrived to mediate between the political forces and Lebanese envoys traveled to gain support. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position, predicted that mayhem is likely to result however the next president is selected.

"Either the political factions agree on a president and pass from this crisis, only to have the situation explode later, or they don't agree on a president and the country plunges into a period of chaos now," he said.

The election will be the first in nearly three decades without Syrian oversight. Syrian troops, which had occupied Lebanon since 1976, were forced out in April 2005 in the international outcry over Hariri's assassination.

Three parliament members from the March 14 movement have declared their candidacies to replace Lahoud. The pro-Syrian opposition has named Michel Aoun, who leads the largest Christian bloc in parliament, as its candidate.

(El Naggar is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)