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World Bitter family feud intertwined in web of Lebanese politics

They say family politics is the worst kind. Maybe, but try mixing it up with Middle Eastern politics.

Consider the case of Gabriel Murr, a Lebanese businessman and politician whose television and radio stations were shut down by the courts last month. Behind his story lies a plot of family relationships as complicated as anything you'll see on The Bold and the Beautiful:

Last June, Mr. Murr won a narrow parliamentary by-election victory over his niece Myrna, who was backed by her father, Mr. Murr's brother, former interior minister Michel Murr. Michel Murr recently passed the interior post to his son, Elias, who is married to President Emile Lahoud's daughter. Elias Murr and Mr. Lahoud are widely believed to be behind the closing of the TV and radio stations.

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It isn't necessary to remember all that to understand the story, but what is important to take away is that behind this family intrigue looms the presence of neighbouring Syria, which dominates every aspect of Lebanese politics and which some say actually controls Lebanon's government.

The Murr family, which belongs to Lebanon's large Christian minority, has divided into competing clans. Gabriel Murr and his children have used their media outlets to rally opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon. Michel Murr and his children are closely tied to the Syrian-backed government.

"I can tell you that 99 per cent of people say good things about my father and bad things about my uncle," Gabriel's son, Jihad, said in an interview. "We don't have problems with the Syrians. We just have problems when they tell our politicians what to do, and with their military presence."

There are 20,000 Syrian soldiers in Lebanon, a legacy of Lebanon's decades-long civil war. Although the country's leaders have made a political accommodation with the Syrians, many Christians resent Damascus's role. Those tensions are rising, and the Beirut government is cracking down on dissent, especially among Christians.

Some Western diplomats believe the Syrians are applying pressure on Beirut as they gird themselves for an eventual confrontation with the United States.

"There's no doubt about it: There is a strategic interest today for Syria to tighten its grip on Lebanon more than ever," a Western diplomat said, on condition he not be named.

"In the case of an armed conflict that many believe is certain between Washington and Iraq, Syria wants to protect its back and hold on to all its cards."

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That's certainly how Gabriel Murr interpreted last month's closing of his two stations, MTV and Radio Mount Lebanon, which threw 400 people out of work.

Paris and Washington complained about the shutdown, as did the Canadian ambassador to Beirut, according to a senior official with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at the Beirut summit of francophone leaders.

There were also protests from international human-rights organizations, Lebanese Christian religious leaders -- even the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria.

Some Lebanese called for public demonstrations, which prompted the Interior Minister -- Elias Murr -- to bann "all demonstrations and sit-ins."

The case against the stations has never been heard in open court, although a judge did issue a ruling stating that they had violated election advertising laws, harmed relations with Syria and "undermined the dignity" of Mr. Lahoud.

An appeal court is expected to issue a judgment today, which will likely settle the matter once and for all. Jihad Murr said it is unlikely that the stations will be allowed to reopen, which he predicted will lead to the very public demonstrations that have been banned.

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