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Ray Suarez speaks with Christian Science Monitor reporter Annia Ciezadlo in Beirut about ongoing tensions between Lebanon and Syria, including the killing of an anti-Syrian journalist.
Annia Ciezadlo, welcome. Where there any visible signs of reaction to the killing of the prominent journalist today in Beirut?
There were. And, in fact, this morning there was a rally held in Martyrs' Square which, I think worldwide viewers now know is the sign of the sort of scene of all the seat of revolutions, gatherings. There was a gathering of journalists this morning. People gathered to remember Samir and everyone sort of held up their pens as a sign to show that they weren't intimidated. People stood for about an hour, talked quietly, sang the national anthem and then left. In other signs, I mean, there were pictures of him around town and, you know, you would see people having conversations around corners, around newsstands, places like that; it was definitely a day of sort of quiet mourning in Beirut for Samir.
What was Samir Kassir known for as columnist? Was his feeling and opinion toward the government of the day and international relations well known to Lebanese?
Absolutely. He was pretty much a national hero. I mean, he was the kind of guy…you would have lunch with him and everyone who came in the restaurant would have to sort of stop and say hello. And sometimes they would congratulate him, sometimes they would thank him.
Samir was well known for being the man who stood up to the Syrian regime during the mid-'90s when it was considered quite dangerous to do so and when really there were not terribly many people doing so. There's always been a fair amount of free speech in Lebanon compared to some other countries, but in the mid-'90s, it was really…it was kind of a taboo topic and Samir was known as a very brave, courageous columnist who would regularly lambaste not only the Syrian regime and Syrian hegemony over Lebanon but also he would take on the Lebanese government for its sort of toadying, I guess you can call it, to the Syrian occupation. And so Samir was really famous for that, and a lot of Lebanese really, really…really idolized him. Very, very sad to see him killed this way.
Apparently he was critical of the Syrians to the end. His last column is reportedly was about the Baath Party, which is soon having its national conference in Syria.
Exactly. And it's a very interesting point. You know, Samir…I last saw him about a month ago and he was very happy with the progress that had been made in Beirut and in Lebanon, and it was almost as though he was beginning to turn his attention to Syria and telling Syria to begin cleaning its own house. He had begun to criticize the Syrian regime not just in Lebanon but at home where it lives. In his last column he was taking on the Baath Party Congress and sort of taking on Assad's call — Syrian President Bashar Assad has been saying in recent days that he will make "a great leap forward." And a lot of Syrians as well as a lot of Lebanese are very skeptical about that. Samir in his last column took on Assad and criticized him for unwillingness to make real reforms.
So this is frightening, I think, for a lot of Syrian intellectuals and sort of Syrian counterparts to Samir because he was an inspiration to many of them. He was friends with many them. And many of them published in the same newspaper that he publishes in. A lot of Syrian journalists will publish in Lebanese newspapers articles that they cannot publish at home in Syrian newspapers because it's too controversial.
Has this killing reignited calls for the Lebanese president, Emile Lahud, to leave office?
Absolutely. You've really seen kind of a resurgence of unity among the Lebanese opposition. There were the beginnings of sort of fragmentation; when the elections started, you saw a lot of new alliances begin to founder. You saw a lot of old alliances also begin to founder.
And this has really kind of brought back some of the unity and it's really brought back some of the purpose to the Lebanese opposition. There are going to be, I think, probably starting tomorrow after Samir's funeral there's going to be marches on the presidential palace. They're already pretty unanimous calls among opposition quarters for the Lahud to resign. So we'll see what happens with that in future days. But it's really brought back this unity to the opposition.
This murder is the most prominent victim since that of Rafik Hariri earlier this year. But could the violence that was so associated with Lebanon for so long be on the verge of returning? Is the country in that dangerous a position?
I think…it's a question that's on everybody's mind right now. I would hesitantly say probably not. But that can change within a moment, as we've seen. The difference is that you don't have, you don't have a sort of…the Lebanese civil war was really five or six or seven or eight different wars at once. And right now there's one situation and I do think it could get much worse. You know, certainly no one expected to see this happen to Samir so I'm not going to say that it will not get more violent. But I don't think it'll be…I hope it won't be a return to the days of militias running rampant as it was in the 15-year civil war here.
At the same time, Lebanon is in the midst of a multipart election. What does the first set of polling look like? Can you tell anything from the returns?
It's hard to generalize about the entire country because the first set of returns was just for Beirut. Turnout was a little low and I think if there's one lesson to take from that, it's that you did begin to see that fragmentation. You saw the various different parts of the opposition that had come together were starting to fall apart a little bit at the seams. I don't know what effect this will have. Maybe the newfound unity will change this in some way. But if you can generalize at all, it was a bit disappointing in this first-round elections. In part, that's because nine of the seats were already spoken for and so I think a lot of people felt like, you know, they didn't necessarily have to go out and vote because their candidate might win anyway.
Annia Ciezadlo in Beirut. Thanks for being with us.
Thank you for having me.
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