Dead leaders drive Lebanese political life

BEIRUT — Assassinated leaders are very much alive in Lebanese politics.

The commemoration of leaders blown up or shot dead is a tradition in a country plagued for decades by political killings and civil violence.

Anti-Syrian politicians and journalists killed in the past two years in the latest wave of political violence remain symbols of the cause for which they stood.

Their names and faces have been deployed in a media campaign to rally support for the government, controlled by anti-Syrian politicians, as it tries to repel a political challenge from the Damascus-backed opposition.

“It’s a war of symbols — a war of pictures,” said Oussama Safa of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

Justice for the victims such as former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is vital to the politicians who have worked to curb Syrian influence in Lebanon.

The establishment of an international tribunal to try suspects is one issue at the heart of the current political split — Lebanon’s most serious since its 1975-1990 civil war.

“We won’t forget,” declare posters around Beirut. They form part of a media campaign recalling the attacks, the first of which was the huge bomb blast that killed Hariri in 2005.

Billboards remind passersby of how the victims were killed or wounded. They show the aftermath — the remains of blown-up vehicles or bullet holes in a car window — alongside pictures of those targeted.

 

Glorification of death

 

The campaign is part of a tradition of remembering the dead.

“From the civil war onwards, death is ingrained in the political culture,” said Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is an inherent part of Arab political culture.” In the civil war, posters of assassinated leaders were used to define which group controlled which area and to entrench sectarian animosity.

“It’s very much a glorification of death, not only among Islamists but Christians as well,” said Ghorayeb, an expert on the Shiite group Hizbollah, which celebrates its fighters who have died fighting Israel.

Lebanon’s opposition, led by Hizbollah, declared as a martyr a Shiite Muslim activist shot dead while returning from an anti-government protest in December. His portrait was put up at the site of the round-the-clock protest being staged by the opposition in central Beirut to demand the resignation of the anti-Damascus government.

The paraphernalia deployed by the anti-Syrian coalition, known as the March 14 Movement, is far more extensive.

Its leaders often wear badges depicting the dead, whose pictures appear daily in newspapers and on television. Hariri’s portrait is displayed at official meetings on a chair next to his son and political heir, Saad.

“I would use the word iconography,” anthropologist Samer Karanshawy said, describing the use of pictures. “It is making these people into icons — sacred.” Pierre Gemayel was the last anti-Syrian politician to be assassinated. He was shot dead in November.

 

Temporary boost

 

Gemayel’s allies turned his funeral into a mass protest against Damascus, giving their cause a temporary boost.

“Who said that the martyrs die?” said Gemayel’s father, former president Amin Gemayel in a speech in December. “Pierre is alive in the consciousness of his colleagues in the March 14 Movement, in the battle for national change and complete liberation,” he said in the address to the Kataeb Party, which is dominated by the Gemayel family.

Setting up an international court to try suspects in the attacks is a priority for the anti-Syrian coalition, which blames Damascus for the killings. Syria denies involvement.

The opposition says it supports the idea of the tribunal but wants to discuss the details, while anti-Syrian leaders say the opposition wants to bring down the Cabinet primarily to thwart the establishment of the court to shield Damascus. The bereaved hope the tribunal will be the means for them to avenge their dead, Karanshawy said.

Many of the March 14 leaders were driven into politics by the assassination of a father, a husband or a son during the civil war. Some blame the killings on Syria.

Keeping alive the memory of the dead “reinforces the legitimacy of their political quest and reinforces a sense of vendetta”, Karanshawy said.

“For these people, the international tribunal is a means of protection and getting back at the killers.”

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