Robert Fisk: Dragons of Lebanon's past emerge for Gemayel funeral

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The Independent Online

Amin Gemayel wept and swooned in front of us. The tens of thousands of Christians and Muslims burst into applause before the improvised stage. Gemayel - a foppish man with little charisma when he was President of Lebanon - held up his right hand and suddenly became a symbol of nobility, still swaying on his feet, his left arm supported by the tall, far younger figure of Saad Hariri. Only two days earlier, Gemayel's MP son, Pierre, had been blasted to death by gunmen in Beirut; his body still lay in the Cathedral of St George a few metres from where we were standing. But nothing became Gemayel like his courage yesterday as he told the vast mass of Lebanese in front of him that, yes, there would be a second revolution in this country which would end only when the pro-Syrian President had been removed.

The knightly St George gave his name to the great Italianate basilica - yes, he is supposed to have slain the dragon in Beirut - but Amin Gemayel's bravery was one of the few moments of humanity on this brightly sunny, politically overcast, disturbing day. For alas, the dragons that move through the dark underworld of Lebanon's politics are still alive. One of them, the gaunt and murderous old militia leader Samir Geagea - he spent 14 years in an underground prison for blowing up a church - talked ominously of Lebanon's enemies, international and domestic. "They wanted a confrontation - so be it," he shouted.

The terrible pain of Lebanon's body politic was all too evident in the figures silhouetted in the evening light alongside the bullet-proof box from which Gemayel spoke. Gemayel himself had lost his son and, in 1982, his president-elect brother Bashir, whose baby daughter was slaughtered in a bomb explosion during the civil war.

There was Marwan Hamade, almost killed by a car bomb explosion in October 2004, and Saad Hariri, whose father Rafik's murder - in an even bigger car bomb explosion in Beirut last year - set off the first "revolution" which brought democracy to Lebanon and the withdrawal of Syrian troops. And there was Walid Jumblatt, the eloquent, nihilist Druze leader, whose father Kemal was murdered by armed men in March of 1977. And Nayla Moawad, whose president-husband, Rene, was blown to atoms by a bomb in November of 1989.

They all stood together on the sad little podium, Pierre's broken body in the basilica behind them, Rafik's burned corpse in the flowered grave beside them.

But yesterday's funeral bore some of the attributes of the Roman games, partly, I suspect, because the informality of Islam has, over the years, brushed off on the Christian Maronite Church.

Old political enemies embraced each other beside priests and sweating paramilitary police while the huge crowds applauded and roared their approval of Messrs Jumblatt and Hariri and, especially, Dr Geagea, but booed with derision Ali Hassan Khalil of the Shia Amal party and a sinister Christian ex-militiaman who once hurled his equally Christian civil war prisoners into the Mediterranean with concrete tied to their legs. They were, of course, alive at the time.

Like everything Lebanese - to misquote Evelyn Waugh - the day's pageantry was very impressive, but went on far too long. We had to listen to church music, church bells, Islamic chants, the music of Majida el-Roumi (the new Fairouz) and the tinny band of the Internal Security Forces as it whump-aad its way through the Lebanese national anthem against the thump of army helicopters. There were forests of flags, happily more Lebanese than militia-oriented and thousands and thousands of Lebanese troops, reservists, gendarmerie, riot police, interior ministry goons, traffic cops and ISF men.

All these, needless to say, to safeguard the lives of that most endangered of species, Lebanon's surviving politicians, from - so most of the crowd assumed - the assassins of Damascus.

In fact, when the bodies of Gemayel and his bodyguard, Samir Chartouni, were removed from the cathedral for burial, there were another hundred heavily armed security men standing around the coffins. If only, I couldn't help asking myself, they had been as enthusiastic to protect the occupants of the caskets when they were alive.

May Chidiac, the Christian journalist who is a harsh critic of Syria's hegemony of Lebanon and lost a leg and a hand in the bombing of her own car last year, bravely gave the crowd a blond, Academy Awards smile.

Watching the great and the good enter the basilica was a bit like spotting the stars. Grey-haired Dory Chamoun, whose militia-leader brother, Dany, was assassinated in 1990, along with his wife, Ingrid, and two of their children, Tariq and Julian. Boutros Harb and Nasib Lahoud (no relation to the hated President) and Charles Rizk, all of whom would like - heaven knows why - to be president of Lebanon when Emile Lahoud either finishes his term in the Baabda palace or is turfed out by the anger of these crowds.

"To Baabda, to Baabda," they shrieked. A march on Baabda is often threatened, not least by Dr Geagea, who does not seem to associate it with the march on Rome. But it is Lahoud who is now regarded as the unconstitutional ruler of Lebanon.

Posters demanded his dismissal - a demand made ever more harshly by Hariri and Jumblatt since Gemayel's murder - and one eloquent banner even addressed the President. "Oh Caesar of Baabda," it proclaimed, "get the hell out!" Less of a Caesar, I would have said, than an attendant lord of Damascus.

Geagea was chilling in his denunciations. "We will not accept that this government shall be changed for a government of murderers and criminals," he shouted. And since it is Sayed Hassan Nasrallah of the Shia Hizbollah who has been abusing the Siniora cabinet as the government of "the US ambassador" - and since it is the Shia ministers who have withdrawn from this same cabinet - one could conclude, could one not, that Dr Geagea's "murderers and criminals" were Shia.

Indeed, dwelling on his bloody wartime sins, most of which were amnestied, one has to reflect why Geagea's lads blew up the congregation of the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in 1994; the court said that he wanted to persuade Christians that Hizbollah had committed the crime.

Funny how these things come back to us. Oddly, Pierre Gemayel's murder has had exactly the same effect on Christians and Sunni Muslims; it has persuaded many of them that the Hizbollah, on Syria's behalf, committed the crime. A distressing thought.

Reaction from the Middle Eastern press

Al-Safir (Lebanon)

'It looks as if the assassination of Pierre Gemayel marks the start of a premeditated series of crimes. It also appears that a new bloody stage has started in Lebanon's modern history'

Al-Quds (pan-Arab)

'Those who planned and carried out this assassination were targeting Syria as much as they were targeting Lebanon. Indeed, they were also targeting the entire Arab region. Syria is the one that is most harmed by this repugnant crime'

Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon)

'What kind of future awaits Lebanon in the presence of parties like Hizbollah and its allies, that promise the Lebanese a greater Tehran if it captures power, and a lesser Baghdad if it fails in this?'

Jomhuri-Ye Eslami (Iran)

'Undoubtedly this assassination was planned and carried out by the Zionist regime because the Zionists stand to gain the most from it'

Al-Ba'th (Syria)

'The new Middle East is a US-Israeli project... Political assassinations... and killings pave the way for sedition. This sedition leads to chaos, and it is chaos which allows the realisation of the project'

Milliyet (Turkey)

'The biggest danger is that the various groups in society will be dragged into civil war'

Al-Arab Al-Alamiyah (pan-Arab)

"It appears Lebanon is pre-ordained to stay a nation of tears. The assassination... has extinguished the glimmer of hope'