WHEN Antoine Ghanem, a member of the Lebanese Parliament, was assassinated Wednesday in a horrific car bombing, he became the eighth anti-Syrian legislator to be killed since the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. To members of the March 14 Movement, an anti-Syrian coalition, there is no mystery about the ultimate power behind these murders, or the motive.
Leaders of the March 14 coalition - Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze - have accused the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad of Ghanem's murder. A United Nations tribunal is investigating the killing of Hariri and other anti-Syrian figures, and the coalition has asked the panel to take up this latest car bombing as well. The assumed motive is crudely political: to kill enough lawmakers in Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's anti-Syrian coalition to deprive it of a parliamentary majority. The benefit for Syria would be preventing legislators from electing a new president who, unlike current President Emile Lahoud, would not be in thrall to Damascus.
Gangsterism on this scale may sound too brazen to be believable, but those familiar with the ways of the Syrian regime know otherwise. Before being killed, Rafik Hariri told friends that Assad threatened him in person, warning that if Hariri did not do Syria's bidding, Assad would break Lebanon over his head. The point of such crude methods is to use fear and intimidation to magnify the power of the ruling clique in Damascus.
Any Lebanese politician or journalist who might want to take a stand against Syrian domination of Lebanon will be aware of all those compatriots in the past who stood up to Assad or his father, Hafez, and were murdered. In addition to Hariri, the list includes onetime Maronite Christian President Bashir Gemayel, former Druze leader Kemal Jumblatt, the journalist Gibran Tueni, and many others across the political spectrum.
It may be too much to hope that Ghanem's murder will become a last straw even for Lebanon's pro-Syrian factions. But this crime appears so scornful of Lebanese sovereignty that even some of those factions felt compelled to denounce it. The most powerful of these, the Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, decried the latest car bombing as "a blow to the country's security and stability as well as any attempt at reconciliation and hope toward reaching a political consensus."
This alludes to the need for consensus on the next president. Parliament is to convene Tuesday to begin the election process, and lawmakers have until Nov. 24 to agree on a candidate. Pro-Syrian forces can block the election by boycotting it, since a two-thirds quorum is needed for a valid vote. Friends of Lebanon in Washington, Europe, and the Arab world should encourage the Lebanese factions to elect a president who will stand up for Lebanon's independence.