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Top Journalist Killed in Lebanon, Opposition Calls For President to Quit

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It is being called the highest profile assassination in Lebanon since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Journalist Samir Qasir died after his car exploded. Now, calls are increasing for the country’s president to step down. We’ll speak for a colleague of Qasir’s, Hisham Melhem, correspondent for an Nahar newspaper. [includes rush transcript]

A prominent anti-Syrian journalist was killed by a car bomb yesterday in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Samir Qasir was a longtime columnist at the major daily newspaper an Nahar. In 2001, Syrian security forces seized Qasir’s passport and threatened to arrest him for criticizing Syria and the police state in Lebanon. Today, journalists, politicians and supporters held an hour-long silent sit-in in central Beirut’s main square.

Qasir was the highest profile assassination target since Labanese former Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri was killed in February of this year. Massive protests following Hariri’s death forced Syria to remove its troops stationed in Lebanon, ending a 29-year military occupation.

Opposition leaders accuse the Syrian government and its supporters in Lebanon of carrying out the killings of both Hariri and Qasir.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud is a strong supporter of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Parliamentary elections going on now will likely make Hariri’s son, Saad, prime minister, but will not go far to encourage Lahoud to resign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined now on the phone by Hisham Melhem, correspondent for an Nahar in Washington, D.C., and host of “Across the Ocean,” a talk show on Al Arabiya satellite television. Welcome to Democracy Now!


JUAN GONZALEZ: Your reaction to this assassination and if you could talk to us a little bit about your colleague, Samir Qasir.

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, of course, this is a tremendous personal loss for us. Samir was a friend and a great colleague and a powerful voice for democracy and freedom in Lebanon. He was a sharp analyst, witty. He had that kind of intellectual integrity that only — people have a great sense of tragedy, if you will, would have — knowing the limitation of political systems and people’s yearning for a perfect democracy as possible. He fought the good fight. He was an egalitarian, who was a genuine democrat. And in the last few years he became one of the founding members of the democracy movement that we’ve seen in the last few months in the squares and streets of Beirut that led — that forced the Syrians to withdraw their army. He was a thorn, if you will, in the side of what we call in Lebanon today the security intelligence system that has been abusing the Lebanese and the Syrian people for so many years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your response to the call by opposition leaders for President Lahoud’s resignation?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think the president, President Lahoud, who owes his position to the Syrians, who forced the Lebanese parliament a few months ago in September to extend his term for three more years. I think his political life is essentially over. And it’s a question of time when he will be forced to resign. He reminds the Lebanese that he represents the remnant of that Syrian presence and abuse of Lebanon that’s been going on for so many years. He lacks legitimacy. Under his watch all of these killings and assassinations are happening, and he sits in his wonderful isolation in his palace doing nothing about it, other than just giving excuses for it. This is a man who is seen as not representing the will of the Lebanese people but representing the will of the Syrian regime in Lebanon. And I think it’s a question of time when he will be driven out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Independent journalist Robert Fisk wrote last week that George Bush’s demand that the parliamentary elections be held, (quote), “on time,” meant that there was no opportunity of making them fairer than they are now under the Syrian-imposed election districts. What is your response to Fisk’s analysis?

HISHAM MELHEM: There is some truth there in the sense that the electoral law under which these elections are taking place was imposed by the Syrians, essentially, in the year 2000 to make it possible for their allies to win in Lebanon. They came up with their own version of gerrymandering, if you will. But we did not have enough time, unfortunately, to come up with an electoral law that is acceptable to most parties, and I think from the perspective of the international community, particularly, to put it bluntly, the Americans and the French, delaying the election creates at least a potential for postponing them indefinitely. And there was this view that unless we have the elections now the international pressure on the Syrians and their Lebanese allies will diminish with the passage of time. And there are many Lebanese politicians, unfortunately, who cannot be trusted if they give you their word. So what we’re hoping for now is that some of those old members of the old guard, if you will, will be swept away by the elections. But definitely this is not a very good electoral law that we have right now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And given the huge contending demonstrations that have been occurring in Lebanon over the last several months, what is your sense of the prospects for a peaceful and constitutional solution to the differences in the country vis-a-vis some of the past civil war period that Lebanon went through?

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, the popular phenomenon that you’ve seen a few months ago in Beirut represents the beginning or the emergence of a new majority in Lebanon. Unfortunately that new majority in Lebanon is still led and manipulated by some of the old guard, by an exclusive club of former militia people, big, large aristocratic political families. And also the Lebanese after the end of the civil war and because of the Syrian presence did not do what the South Africans did, for instance, after the collapse of the apartheid, in which they established a commission for truth and reconciliation to exorcise their own demons, if you will, and to really deal morally and politically and legally with the causes of the civil war. So they’ve postponed that, unfortunately, and that’s why we’re still suffering from some of the effects of a by-gone conflict. At least now with the Syrians out, the possibility of real political reform is there, and it’s up to the Lebanese to sort out their own differences politically and peacefully to come up with a new formula that most Lebanese will feel comfortable with.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you, Hisham Melhem, correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper an Nahar in Washington, D.C. and host of “Across the Ocean,” a talk show on Al Arabiya satellite televisioni, for being with us and our condolences on the assassination, the death of your colleague and friend, Samir Qasir.

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