Samir Kassir promised his wife that when the Syrians left Lebanon, he would stop smoking. But last Wednesday, in the evening, as he was sitting with friends in a cafe, he was still lighting up. Maybe there was one Syrian left on Lebanese soil, he jokingly remarked to his friend Muhammad Ali Farhat, so he would have an excuse to keep smoking. The Syrians served Kassir not only as a reason to smoke, but also as a subject of his excellent articles. But last Thursday, at the age of 45, Kassir left his apartment on the seventh floor of a residential building in Beirut's prestigious Ashrafiyeh neighborhood, turned the key in the ignition of his white Alfa Romeo, and blew up.
"Samir Kassir will not write today," was the headline Ghassan Tueni gave to his article mourning Kassir. Tueni, who is the owner and editor of the important An-Nahar newspaper, in which Kassir's weekly column came out every Friday, wrote in his article: "Kassir wrote his column yesterday in blood."
Kassir's assassination was not unexpected; he had been complaining for some time that Syrian intelligence was following him. He said he had received anonymous threatening letters and that the former head of Lebanese intelligence, Jamil Sayyed, who resigned about a month ago in the wake of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, had indirectly threatened his life. The reason: a series of articles Kassir had published under the heading "The Army Against the People," in which he accused Syria and intelligence elements in Lebanon of oppressing the country. The fact that his origins are Syrian on his father's side and Palestinian (from Jaffa) on his mother's did not help him. In the eyes of the Syrians and his opponents in Lebanon, Kassir was a plague that had to be eliminated.
Kassir, who embarked on his journalistic career about 25 years ago as a columnist in France's Le Monde Diplomatique and in the Arabic newspaper Al Yawm al Seb'a (The Seventh Day), published a political and cultural magazine called Orient Express and wrote a column for the important London-based newspaper Al Hayat. He combined academic work and journalism, politics and philosophy. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne on the civil war in Lebanon, and one of the four books he published became a basic text for understanding that war. That was the war that brought the Syrians into Lebanon and engendered courageous writers like Kassir, Jubran Tueni, Joseph Samaha and others, journalists who brought about and nourished the protest movement against the Syrian occupation.
The results of the activities of this protest movement, which was born from articles by Tueni and Kassir five years ago, after the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from Lebanon, are now evident in the parliamentary elections, the third and penultimate phase of which will take place on Sunday. This is a campaign in which the editor of An-Nahar, who according to reports from Lebanon was the attackers' preferred target - will become a member of parliament and can contribute to the next move to which the opposition aspires: deposing the pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud. To a large extent, the assassination of Samir Kassir can be seen as a warning to his boss, Tueni. Journalists, certainly in Lebanon, are not sacred.
In the course of Lebanese history, 26 important journalists have been murdered, from the 1916 execution of 10 journalists by agents of the Ottoman sultan to the assassination of Kassir. His murder may also have been a warning to his wife, the well-known journalist Giselle Khoury, who for years edited and presented the popular programs "The Eighth Day" and "Life Interview" on the Lebanese television network LBC. Khoury is considered the most important woman journalist in the Arab world and was named one of the most important female journalists in the world by The New York Times.
Her acute and uncompromising interviews have earned her many enemies, especially in the Syrian and Lebanese establishments. Following pressures from them, her programs were rescheduled to the late-night hours, impossible to watch for most viewers in Lebanon, and ultimately she was fired from the network. Khoury immediately found a more important home: the Al Arabiya network, which gave her a political interview show that competes with programs on large networks like Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi.
A friend of Kassir, who agreed to discuss his death in an e-mail on condition that he not be identified, wrote to Haaretz: "The great tragedy of the loss of our colleague Samir Kassir cannot conceal a no less important matter: The regime here is afraid of the press. If there is a positive result in this tragedy, this is where it lies. In other places in the world, including Arab countries, the authorities `make do' with detaining journalists, arresting them or even threatening them. Here the situation is different. I hope that Kassir's assassination is not the beginning of a Syrian wave of violence against journalists, after the Syrians have found out just how much trouble Lebanese public opinion can make for them."
This statement is not entirely accurate: Journalists have been murdered or have disappeared in most of the Arab countries, as well as in African countries, Russia, Turkey and Iran, but there is a difference. In most of these countries, journalists who were "disappeared" were acting against specific targets: Mafia bosses, corrupt police officers, racist organizations and so on. In Lebanon, the opposition press in recent years has been fighting for the state's independence. Therefore, with an ongoing election race there that could be considered historic - the first in many years not being conducted under Syrian auspices - and with Syria watching its bastions of power there potentially evaporating, the panic in Damascus is growing more acute.
Last week, a Kurdish Syrian cleric, Sheikh Ma'ashouq Haznawi, who had demanded civil rights for Kurds in Syria, was found dead. A number of Syrian intellectuals were also arrested in Syria, and the Al Attasi discussion club in Damascus, the only one that was active since the "Syrian spring" that began when Bashar Assad became president, was closed under orders. These steps did not prevent important intellectuals, who in the past also made their voices heard against the regime, from publicly condemning the assassination of Samir Kassir this week. It is doubtful that this time there will be anything that can silence the Lebanese press.
Letter to an Israeli enemy
Samir Kassir knew precisely how to give an accurate description of political power struggles in Israel, faithfully sketched portraits of Israeli politicians and did not hesitate to express opinions that aroused the ire of "nationalist elements" because they were contrary to the official line against Israel. One of his most important articles on Israel was published in An-Nahar around the time of the elections in 2003, under the heading "Letter to an Enemy." The thrust of it is as follows:
"O, enemy. I know that it is not the custom of enemies to correspond. However, our enmity is not ordinary. After a generation during which we refused to come to terms with the attack you carried out on the land of Palestine [the reference is to Israel after 1948 - Z.B.], ultimately our state and our government accepted the fact that you are no longer the enemy with whom we have an existential conflict, but only an opponent with whom we have a border dispute. Not everyone accepted this change and many of us are still using the rhetoric of war. However, we have established the principle that peace is our strategic choice, especially now that all of our countries have entered into a complex peace process with you.
"This change took root in our minds when you recognized the Palestinian people after a long denial, and after you established with the Palestinian people a kernel of a historic compromise, which you quickly emptied of content and pulled back from fulfilling all your commitments ... We rather quickly understood that the peace we had adopted was not the general choice where you are, but we have continued, while remaining on guard, to maintain our choice, and we have continued to follow the signals that are coming from your direction, should they strengthen the peace.
"And thus, great and small here have become experts on your Election Law and the regulations of your Knesset and your societal concepts. When the Internet spread, reading Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post became a daily habit for many of us; and with the diffusion of the Arabic satellite stations that broke through the psychological barrier and held interviews with Israeli guests, statesmen and commentators, I think all of us have obtained doctorates in the political sociology of Israel. But alas for that knowledge: What have we got from it apart from losing the way? The truth is that a few days before your elections I must admit to you, O enemy, that I understand you.
"O enemy. I know that enemies do not customarily speak frankly with one another. But our enmity is not ordinary. You forced yourselves on us and then you went and complained that we weren't accepting you, and after we accepted the idea of coexistence with you, you became indifferent. I am not saying this only because you are determined to postpone the opportunity to renew the peace process ... You are sending contradictory signals the way you did in the previous elections, when you elected [Ariel] Sharon while claiming that you supported peace. So be it. I could also understand that. You winked at your environment with feelings of hatred and it is hard to shake off what has become second nature ... What I don't understand is that you are behaving as though you don't know what you want. I am not asking you what you want, I am telling you what you are - you are sick!
"I know what you will answer. You will no doubt say that we are the ones who are sick. Our states are sick and our societies are sick. The difference between us and you is that we recognize our sick condition, while you are arrogant. We understand the danger of our illness so well that we have accepted, as an initial treatment, amputating one of our limbs, which is that part of Palestine of which you took control over half a century ago ... We have acted like a surgeon who knows that not to sacrifice the infected hand will bring about the patient's demise. We therefore accepted the compromise that will enable us to treat ourselves. You have done this to yourself because you have not yet noticed that you are sick, and possibly more than we are." (Z.B.)