Mohamad Chatah - Lebanon's man of dialogue - is murdered in Beirut

Mohamad Chatah died in a car bomb that killed five others

It was a bomb against the Saudis. Mohamad Chatah represented the most reasonable face of the Saudi-supported March 14 party in Lebanon – moderates are usually the first targets of Lebanese assassins – and the bombing in which six others, including the former finance minister’s bodyguards, were killed, was carried out with the usual meticulous planning.  In the very centre of Beirut, too, in the new city built by Saad Hariri’s father Rafiq and within half a mile of where Rafiq himself was assassinated almost nine years ago.

As usual, the killing was condemned by all the usual suspects:  the Syrians, the Hezbollah, the Russian embassy, the Iranian embassy and just about anybody who might have wanted to strike the political party of Lebanon’s Sunni community.  Last month, a Shia Muslim Hezbollah man was murdered outside his home, before that the Iranian embassy was bombed with 26 fatalities, before that the Shia southern suburbs, before that two mosques in Tripoli (Chatah’s home town), total dead 46.  Tit-for-tat isn’t the word for it.  Mohamed Chatah had been a financial adviser to Hariri father and son – and must have known that he was, like many good guys in Lebanon, a target.

Several years ago, I met him in a West Beirut restaurant – ironically in the same Ein Mreisse district in which he was to die – and he was trying to decide then if he should leave his post at the International Monetary Fund in the US for the cantankerous, dangerous, addictive world of Lebanese politics.  My host was trying to persuade him to make the journey back to Beirut – he may regret this now, since his advice led Mohamed Chatah to his martyrdom – and Chatah came across as an eminently moderate man who believed in dialogue rather than military force, even when it came to disarming the Shia Hezbollah militia.  He was, as his friend Marwan Iskander said to me yesterday, a man of integrity.  And integrity is a rare quality in Lebanon.

Like most of Lebanon’s finest, he had been educated at the American University in Beirut but gained his doctorate in the States where he would later serve as Lebanon’s ambassador.  Diplomat and politician, his death caused the March 14 movement to blame Hezbollah and the Iranians.  Najib Mikati, the caretaker prime minister in a Lebanese government that doesn’t exist, claimed that Lebanon was now a “hostage to terrorists.”

Oddly, Arabs – from General Sissi in Egypt to Messers Assad and Maliki in Syria and Iraq – now use the word ‘terrorist’ more frequently than the Western mentors who taught them to use this meretricious, generic and frightful expression.  But in Lebanon, it is difficult to dispute the fact that violence has always imprisoned the Lebanese.  Indeed, the killers of this tiny state make a point of eliminating all those who might cure Lebanon’s cancer peacefully – hence Chatah’s murder – thus leaving the field open to the wild men of every party.

Up to 70 Lebanese were also wounded in yesterday’s bombing – which may or may not have been a suicide killing – and none missed the obvious fact that the assassination occurred in one of the most heavily guarded central areas of new Beirut.  Surrounded by banks, boutique shops, ancient churches and mosques and the prime minister’s own offices – all restored by Hariri senior after the country’s 1975-90 civil war — Mohamed Chatah was a prestige target in a prestige part of town.  The smoke of the explosion which killed him drifted across the facade of the old Turkish serail in which the caretaker cabinet – the prime minister-designate has not been able to form a government for eight months – regularly meets.  In Lebanon, democracy often comes shrouded in smoke and fire.

Mohamed Chatah, as everyone in Lebanon knew, opposed both the rule of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Hezbollah’s armed role in Lebanon.  Scarcely an hour before his death, he had tweeted a warning that the Hezbollah was “pressing hard” to be granted the same security and foreign policy powers once enjoyed by Syria.  He had several times written that “a united and peaceful Syria ruled by Assad is simply not possible.” 

As long ago as 2007, on the eve of presidential elections, Mohamed Chatah had talked of the assassinations still to come in his country.

Yet it would be naive to think that these views – freely expressed by many in the Lebanese opposition, some more prominent than Chatah himself – provoked his murder.  In reality, he was just another face of the Sunni-Shia cold war which has burst through the crust of Muslim society over the past 30 years, increasing in ferocity as the old American-Soviet Cold War faded into history.

It is easy to forget that until the Iranian Revolution – which brought the power of Shia Islam into perspective within the Middle East – Saudi Arabia was virtually the only focus of Muslim attention.  The holy cities of Mecca and Medina ruled the Islamic world;  once the Iranian clerics of Tehran and Qom claimed the latest Muslim revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia was challenged.

Thus in Iraq and Syria as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran itself, the Sunni-Shia conflict – so long deep-frozen by the East-West Cold War and scarcely spoken of within the Middle East for fear of its repercussions – has boiled over into a terrifying and real war.  Insofar as Syria’s sectarian battle has infected Lebanon, poor Mohamed Chatah was a victim of this same conflict, slotted neatly and fatally into the Saudi-Iran struggle made manifest in one of the region’s smallest countries.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor