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Ana Maria Luca & Alex Rowell

The death of a statesman

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

Mohammad Chatah shakes hands with his successor as finance minister, Rayya Haffar
Beirut car bomb scene. (AFP)

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. 

Former minister of Finance Mohammad Chatah was one of March 14’s most prominent political strategists. (AFP/Joseph Barrak)

“The only way they could stop him from thinking was to kill him.”

  • Beiruti

    I think that the site of the bombing is more significant than the identity of its victims when attempting to decipher cause and attribution. The Daheiyh bomb was significant because it happened in Daheiyh, not for it's victims. This one went of in the heart of central Beirut! not Ashrafieha, or some sectarian center, but center city, the heart of commerce, business and near the seat of government. Preceded, as it was, with discussions of government formation contrary to Hezbollah's wishes, and after an implicit threat from Naim Kassem that Salaam should not proceed with the neutral government, the simple solution to the issues of attribution, motive, means and benefit all point to Hezbollah, or whoever controls and directs Hezbollah. Regarding Israel's role, does Israel coordinate with Hezbollah? We know now that the US has back channel communications with Hezbollah. Hezbollah fights "tikfiri" in Syria, a common enemy shared with Israel. Hezbollah supports Assad, the Israeli preferred leader of Syria. Why did Obama not take Assad out in August when it was so easy for him to have done so? The Israeli veto is why. So, yes, Israel could have ordered the car bombing and Hezbollah executed the order. Powerful forces want Hezbollah to not be distracted by local Lebanese politics as it gobies about the more serious mission of repressing al Qaida in Syria.

    December 28, 2013

  • Vlad Tepes

    Well, seeing as how hardly anything you said makes even the slightest bit of sense, I don't think it requires much of a response. Yes, circumstantial evidence does point to Hezbollah, but homicide investigations are often much more complicated than that.

    December 29, 2013

  • Vlad Tepes

    Has anyone considere any Zionist involvement in all of this? They are potentially the #1 suspect. It would be too obvious for.Hezbollah to pull such a thing. My money iI on Zionists attempting subterfuge.

    December 28, 2013

  • MikeKaram

    Why should they? You might as well ask if anyone has considered MI5 involvement. Why is the Arab mind in such denial? Can you please tell me why Israel would want to stage a hit in the middle of Beirut to kill Mohammad Chattah? Please explain.

    December 28, 2013

  • Vlad Tepes

    Okay, look. It's very simple. Zionists and Saudis are both American allies and very likely secret friends. They have developed a partnership with a mutual goal of weakening Iran. Zionists want the end of Hezbollah, the end of Assad family rule, and Iran being belly up. What do the Saudis want? You get the picture? They both have dedicated entire ministries for purposes such as this. Just sitting around and figuring out how to create havoc for those 3 partners in crime. It would be a perfect opportunity, with all the political turmoil going on for them to pull something like this. Think about it, who has the most to lose, and who has the most to gain. They assassinate Hassan Laqis (high ranking Hezbollah member), and now they come back for a second hit.

    December 28, 2013