The November 21 assassination of industry minister Pierre Gemayel has provided a focus for US-backed Lebanese politicians to rally their supporters for a possible confrontation with the Hezbollah-led opposition bloc.
Gemayel served as the representative of the Christian-based far-right Phalangist party in Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government.
Saad Hariri, head of the pro-Siniora majority Mustaqbal bloc in parliament and son of former PM Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005, told CNN: "We think that Syria's hands were in this crime, since in a few days there is supposed to be a second round [in the UN Security Council to ratify the establishment of] an international tribunal [to investigate the killing of Rafik Hariri], and Syria is trying to evade this."
Responding to US claims that Damascus was behind Gemayel's assassination, the Syrian UN embassy issued a media statement declaring: "Syria is outraged by this terrible act. In a time when the international community is advocating more engagement with Syria, such an act only stands to undermine these initiatives."
Hezbollah and its allies also condemned the assassination, warning that its aim was "to throw Lebanon into a state of anarchy, destruction, and civil war".
The November 22 Beirut Nahar daily reported that a group calling itself "Fighters for the Unity and Freedom of al Sham [Greater Syria]" took responsibility for the assassination in a communique that denounced Gemayel as "one of those who unceasingly spouted their venom against Syria and against the Resistance [i.e. Hezbollah]".
In the week preceding the assassination, there had been a sharp escalation in political tensions in Lebanon. Over the November 10-11 weekend, five Shiite and one Christian minister resigned from Siniora's 24-member cabinet.
The Shiite ministers — two from Hezbollah and three from its ally Amal — resigned in protest against Siniari's refusal to accede to the demand raised by the Hezbollah-led opposition to be granted one-third of the cabinet posts or the calling of fresh parliamentary elections.
The US-backed Siniora government came into office in July last year after more than 1 million Lebanese, overwhelmingly Christians and Sunnis, demonstrated in Beirut on March 14 to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops after the Hariri assassination.
Syria sent 40,000 troops into Lebanon in 1976, with US and Israeli approval, to stop the Phalangist militia being defeated by their Lebanese leftist and Palestinian opponents in the then one-year-old civil war. Under intense US pressure, in April 2005 Syria agreed to end its 29-year occupation of Lebanon, withdrawing all its troops by the end of that month.
While the Western media has portrayed the divisions in Lebanese politics since then in terms of a conflict between the "pro-Syrian" Shiite factions and their "anti-Syrian" Sunni-Christian rivals, the real division is between the US-backed Christian-Sunni political elite and the Lebanese nationalist Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) opposition bloc.
The Christian-based secular-nationalist FPM, led by former army chief Michel Anoun, was a key part of the anti-Syria March 14 alliance. But in February this year, the FPM, which has 21 MPs, formed an alliance with Hezbollah based on demands for a complete end to the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and for reform of the electoral law, long seen as discriminatory against Shiites, the poorest section of the country's population.
No official census has been taken in Lebanon since 1932. However, it is estimated that Shiites make up 40% of Lebanon's 4 million inhabitants, while Christians and Sunnis each account for about 30%. Under Lebanon's current electoral law, Christians are allocated 64 seats in the 128-member parliament, while Shiites are only allocated 27.
At the time of the formation of the Hezbollah-FPM alliance, a survey conducted by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information (BCRI) found that 77% of Christians approved of it.
Voter support for the Siniora government slumped in July-August when, as the US McClatchy news service noted on November 14, it was "was unable to stop Israeli planes from pounding southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut while Hezbollah fighters fought Israeli forces to a standstill and won cheers throughout the Arab world".
A poll published on November 13 by the BCRI found that nearly 60% of Lebanese voters favour the Hezbollah-FPM opposition bloc. This would translate into 69 parliamentary seats, if an election were held under the existing electoral law, or up to 79 seats if it were held under a fairer electoral law.
In a taped interview broadcast by Hezbollah's al Manar TV station on November 19, its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that the "Lebanese government is in a state of weakness and is still feeling a huge defeat as the result of the last Israeli war in Lebanon". He called on opposition supporters to be prepared to mobilise in peaceful street demonstrations to force the government's resignation.
Following the broadcast, government MP Walid Jumblatt told members of his parliamentary group: "The opposition groups are on the verge of announcing a coup in the country and we should take the brave decision to confront all options."
Two days after Gemayel's killing, the website of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute reported that "participants in Sunni Islamist forums (for instance, that of www.mohajroon.com) have written that battle between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon is imminent and inevitable, and have even proposed operative steps in preparation for this war. Among the ideas raised have been gathering intelligence on Shiite weapons arsenals in order to seize them, purchasing houses and warehouses throughout the country to serve as bases for the Sunni mujahideen, and the 'liquidation' of Shiite imams and leaders."