Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 7 Table of Contents
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July 2003 


Murr Feud Flares Again
by Ziad K. Abdelnour

Gabriel Murr

A good measure of how little security there is in Lebanon today is the fact that this summer's most outrageous "insecurity incident" is not the June 15 rocket attack on a television station owned by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Nor is it the July 17 assault on the wife of Johhny Abdo, a former intelligence chief widely regarded as having Hariri's backing to replace Emile Lahoud as president. A recent assault on the motorcade of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri also failed to rise above the level of mundane insecurity in Lebanon and soon faded from the headlines.

This summer's most talked about "insecurity incident" came on July 26, when a group of mainstream Christian opposition figures traveled to the village of Btighrin, in Metn, to attend a lunch hosted by Gabriel Murr, the owner of what was once the country's leading independent television station and the victor of last year's Metn by-election. Gabriel Murr's electoral victory in June 2002 came at the expense of his estranged brother, former Interior Minister Michel Murr, the Syrian-backed "godfather" of Metn politics. Michel's son, Elias (who happens to be President Lahoud's son-in-law), inherited the job of interior minister in 2000, but was unable to prevent his uncle his uncle from prevailing in what was widely celebrated as a victory for the opposition. That victory was short-lived - Murr Television was shut down in September 2002 and the results of the Metn election were annulled by the judiciary in November. However, the need to resort to such blatantly illegal means of preserving his dominance of Metn politics was deeply humiliating for Michel. Gabriel's hosting of an "opposition luncheon" in the family's own hometown added insult to injury.

As the motorcade carrying MP Nassib Lahoud, his wife, and former MP Camille Ziade reached the outskirts of Btighrin at Marjaba, it suddenly encountered a road block and a hail of automatic weapons fire from around 15 gunmen, who forced the cars to turn back to Beirut and assaulted three news photographers who attempted to film the incident, smashing their cameras. According to Lahoud, a cousin and political rival of the Lebanese president, an army officer nonchalantly watched these events just a few meters away.

The incident caused a national uproar, with opposition figures calling for an impartial investigation and the resignation of Elias Murr. Even Syrian President Bashar Assad was said to have been outraged by the assault ("absolutely unacceptable," he was quoted as saying by former Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami),[1] which handed mainstream Christian opposition a huge public relations victory. Word quickly came down from Damascus that Lebanese government officials should avoid appearing to protect Michel Murr at all costs. On July 27, Parliament Speaker Berri declared that "an attack on MPs cannot be tolerated." [2] President Lahoud vowed that the perpetrators would be brought to justice, promising that "no one is exempt."[3] As if to underscore his seriousness, Lahoud canceled his weekly meeting with Michel Murr.

For his part, Elias Murr declared within hours of the incident that "the war of the brothers that has ruined Metn will have to be brought to an end and I am going to bring it to an end."[4] In the days that followed, the authorities arrested five of the alleged gunmen, Metn police chief Talal Saad, Bekfayya police commander Ibrahim Anton and the head of Btighrin's police station, Gabriel Jabbour, and two other policemen.

The Christian opposition decried these measures as inadequate. On July 29, the Qornet Shehwan Gathering released a statement that accused the interior minister of "covering up for the true assailants" and demanded that he be dismissed, adding that his continued presence in the cabinet would implicate the government as a whole. "Avoiding punishing the real culprits and covering up for the real instigators, who are known to everybody, means that all government officials are partners in the incident."[5] Reacting to this demand, the interior minister declared, "I have resigned from myself, from my house, from my family, and from my township to enforce the law."[6]

As for Michel Murr, he held a press conference in Btighrin on July 28 and categorically denied that his henchmen had assaulted anyone. Despite the fact that the assault took place in broad daylight in front of numerous witnesses, Murr denied that it had even taken place. "No one blocked the way to Btighrin for any MP, journalist, or member of Qornet Shehwan," he told reporters. "Those who did not continue returned back of their own free will." To the astonishment of observers, he then declared that his brother's lunch invitation was "provocative" attempt at "defying us in our own home" and that "every politician knows this could lead to trouble" (a remark that struck many as inconsistent with his claim of innocence). He subsequently acknowledged that a few shots had been fired in the air when Lahoud's entourage took a detour through his private property after encountering a traffic jam along the main road. He said that the traffic jam, which opposition figures have said was created by Murr's supporters, was due to busses and cars parked "as usual" in the village square. Reporters later said that no such vehicles were seen parked "as usual" as they traveled the press conference, but suddenly appeared afterwards (causing a major traffic jam as reporters returned to Beirut). Murr's supporters had evidently parked them there during the press conference in order to validate his explanation.[7]

Michel Murr's defiance did not sit well with either the Syrians or his allies in the Lebanese government. Two days later, he declared that he had authorized Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir to sponsor a "reconciliation" with his brother (Sfeir politely replied that it is the Greek Orthodox Church that should sponsor reconciliation among its adherents).[8]

The need for "reconciliation" between the warring brothers (as opposed to an actual investigation of the incident) quickly became the catch phrase for Syria's allies in Lebanon, who are anxious to put the issue behind them. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose animated criticism of the American-sponsored Israel-Palestinian peace plan regularly makes headlines in Lebanon, declared that it is the "warring Murr family" that needs a roadmap to peace.[9]

Although, as the Beirut-based Daily Star noted, "the general belief prevails in political circles of Michel Murr's influence over the event" in Btighrin,[10] no solid proof linking Michel Murr to the incident has yet come to light, and is very doubtful that it ever will.

Notes

  [1] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 30 July 2003.
  [2] The Daily Star (Beirut), 28 July 2003.
  [3] Al-Safir (Beirut), 28 July 2003.
  [4] Al-Nahar (Beruit), 27 July 2003.
  [5] The Daily Star (Beirut), 30 July 2003.
  [6] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 31 July 2003.
  [7] The Daily Star (Beirut), 29 July 2003.
  [8] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 31 July 2003.
  [9] Al-Hayat (London), 31 July 2003.
  [10] The Daily Star (Beirut), 29 July 2003.


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