Saturday, January 4, 2014

The death of a statesman

[Originally posted at NOW, co-written with Ana Maria Luca]

NOW explores Mohammad Chatah’s political role and the possible reasons behind his assassination.

On his way to a political meeting of the March 14 coalition, Former Lebanese Finance minister Mohammad Chatah tweeted, “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.” Within minutes, a car bomb exploded in Downtown Beirut, and Chatah was dead. It damaged six buildings around the Starco building, killing five other people and wounding scores in one of the most crowded business and administrative areas of Beirut.

It was political statements like his last tweet that led to Chatah’s assassination, friends, analysts, and fellow politicians told NOW. Chatah did not have a very important position in government anymore, but he was one of the political strategists of the Future Movement and the March 14 coalition. Considered a Sunni moderate, he was also a very vocal political adversary of Hezbollah and of Syrian government influence over Lebanese politics.

“He had a very dynamic role. He was a man of principle, was very involved in the decisionmaking in March 14. His killing will definitely complicate the mission of the Sunni moderates in this part of the world,” Mosbah al-Ahdab, prominent Sunni politician from Tripoli, told NOW.

“Mohammad’s mind never stopped thinking. The only way they could stop him from thinking was to kill him,” journalist Nadim Koteish, Chatah’s close friend, also told NOW.

Born Mohamad Baha Chatah in Tripoli in 1951, he attended the local Evangelical primary school and the International College secondary school in Beirut. He obtained a BA in economics from the American University of Beirut in 1974, and later a PhD in the same field from the University of Texas in 1983. Upon completing his postgraduate studies, Chatah joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington D.C. as an advisor to the executive director. In 1993, he returned to Lebanon as Vice Governor of the Central Bank, a post he would hold until becoming Ambassador to the United States in 1997.

In 1999, with his ally the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri no longer in power, Chatah returned to the IMF in Washington as an advisor on external relations. He would remain there until Hariri’s 2005 assassination, at which point Chatah moved back to Lebanon for good, serving as a chief advisor to Prime Ministers Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri, as well as Minister of Finance from 2008 to 2009. He remained a senior aide to both Future Movement officials.

Chatah was also a prominent public figure, regularly appearing on radio and television and posting frequently on his blog and Twitter account, where he would write on Lebanese political and economic affairs, the Syrian conflict, Palestine, the Arab uprisings, and Western foreign policy, as well as jokes and other light-hearted topics.

Hours after the bomb went off, analysts and politicians were still trying to make sense of what the former minister’s assassination meant for the Lebanese political scene. Some interpreted Chatah’s assassination as a message to politicians in the pro-Western March 14 coalition, especially Saad Hariri, who has been in exile for over two years for fear he might be assassinated.

Future MP Khaled Zahraman told NOW that “the assassination aims at intimidating and threatening March 14… We see in this assassination a resemblance to prior assassinations like al-Hariri’s and other assassinations that are investigated by the STL,” he added.

The trial of the case of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination is due to start mid-January in the Hague. The prosecutors charged four Hezbollah members and supporters with the crime.

Moreover, according to Koteish, the former minister was very active in the past few months in supporting a neutral Lebanese government. Chatah played an important role in the debate among political factions in recent weeks, acting as a political messenger between political leaders in the negotiations for forming Tamam Salam’s government. “He was more than a messenger: he was one of the most prominent Lebanese political engineers,” he added.

Zahraman stressed that the bombing was a message sent to intimidate the entire political faction Chatah was part of. “This is a new phase. The assassinations which we witnessed between 2005 and 2008 were trials by the Syrian regime to cause fractions in the internal Lebanese affairs through igniting sectarian divisions and clashes. It seems that the Syrian regime’s trials have failed earlier, so they are now using the methods of assassinations again now to provoke more fractions and tension,” Zahraman said.

Analysts don’t expect a great impact on the Lebanese Sunni community. “Whoever killed Chatah was very smart,” Koteish argued. “Mohammad Chatah was not a prominent Sunni figure whose death would translate among the Sunnis as an attack on the Sunni community. He was a Lebanese moderate figure,” Koteish said.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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