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Lebanese consensus-building: weathering a tempest

With the Special Tribunal of Lebanon indictment for the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri set to be issued ‘very, very soon’, the weary and the wary in Lebanon are holding their breath.
Sarah El-Richani
14 December 2010

In what seems like a race against time — or rather the imminent Special Tribunal of Lebanon (STL) indictment — diplomatic efforts have intensified over the past weeks on several fronts including the Saudi, Syrian, Iranian, Turkish, Qatari and the French. It remains to be seen however if the diplomatic efforts, particularly on the Syrian-Saudi front, will bear fruit.

Meanwhile though, on the streets in Lebanon and particularly the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighbourhoods in Beirut, and the Sunni-Alawite areas in Tripoli amongst others, the Lebanese wait in anticipation, and fear of the dreaded-indictment and the possible repercussions. Many dramatic scenarios are circulating ranging from an exaggerated claim of a possible Hezbollah takeover to the milder and more realistic eruption of ‘scuffles’, to put it euphemistically a la Libanaise.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has confirmed the likelihood that the indictment will accuse some of his partisans [ ...] In his November 11 speech (he) announced his party will "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members. 

Whilst the contents of the indictment and the evidence on which it is based remain officially unknown, reports first published by Der Spiegel in 2009 and more recently by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), amongst others, point to some Hezbollah members’ involvement in the February 2005 assassination of the former PM.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has since confirmed the likelihood that the indictment will accuse some of his partisans and he has rejected a settlement which allegedly would have indicted, ‘rogue party members’ rather than the party itself. He went further in his November 11 speech to announce that his party will "cut off the hand" of anyone who tries to arrest any of its members. He declared that any cooperation with the tribunal will be regarded as an attack on the party after he had previously censured the UN-backed investigation for overlooking the possibility of Israeli involvement, despite the presence and capture of dozens of spies working for Israel in Lebanon and some non-incriminating evidence he put forth to the public in August.

As raised here in a perhaps overly categorical recent article, several doubts have been levelled at the STL and concerns about the possible politicisation of the STL have come to be adopted by many Lebanese, some perhaps for pragmatic reasons.

In addition to attempts to prove that an indictment based on ‘phone evidence’ as per the CBC report is baseless due to the Israeli infiltration of the Lebanese networks as revealed by the Minister of Telecommunications in Lebanon, doubts have been cast on the investigation process for publicly suspecting Syria at the outset, and for imprisoning four top Lebanese generals for four years only to release them in 2009 for lack of sufficient evidence. The closely related ‘false witnesses’ dossier which the March 8 camp insisted on having referred to the Justice Council is another attempt to show that ‘fabricated’ testimonies render any indictment dubious. 

Yet some of the geo-political rationale presented by the opposition, pejoratively labelled by others as yet another conspiracy theory, is neither wholly irrational nor improbable.

Questioning the ulterior motives of the United States in particular and its suspicious zeal for justice in Lebanon despite dozens of assassinations in the past and its almost complete disregard of civilian loss and injustice at the hands of its ally in both Lebanon and Palestine is not only natural but necessary.

Also, it is no secret that Israel, the United States and the latter’s Arab allies - as some Wikileaks cables have discovered despite it being no secret - would very much benefit from having Hezbollah, a Shi’ite group with close ties to Iran, implicated in the murder of the former Sunni PM, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. This will undoubtedly harm Hezbollah, hitherto regarded by most Lebanese and Arabs as a successful resistance movement which prevented an Israeli victory in the devastating ‘July War’ in 2006 and helped liberate the Lebanese south of Israeli occupation.

While the party has erred in recent years, particularly when its fighters took to the streets of Beirut and the nearby Druze villages in May 2008, thereby disillusioning many of their former Sunni and Druze supporters, it remains a key player in Lebanon with a democratically elected bloc in parliament, ministers in the government cabinet, and relatively good relations with European nations and most Lebanese factions.

Locally, the Ministerial statement of the current cabinet enshrines the right of ‘the resistance’ and the weak state’s ill-equipped army to resist any foreign assault. Politically, the Free Patriotic Movement, a party headed by General Michel Aoun with the largest Christian bloc in parliament, signed a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah in 2006 and remains a staunch ally. More recently the cunningly fickle Druze leader Walid Jumblatt repented and joined the March 8 camp, of which Hezbollah is a leading party.

Whilst the few die-hard March 14 leaders and supporters left still rationally insist that only justice will put an end to the targeting of political life in Lebanon, many others are wondering if this tribunal can truly deliver justice and more importantly if the cost that will come with it is worth the gamble. Amongst those is current PM Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former PM, who is yet to clearly answer these questions and is waiting for some inspiration from across the borders, mainly from his patron‘s negotiations with Syria, before he cuts the Gordian knot or has it cut for him.

And indeed, the diplomatic efforts seem to point to yet another compromise, hopefully this time, to pre-empt a violent outbreak. Sadly compromises, settlements and amnesty laws in line with the ‘no victors no vanquished’ formula, have become a custom in Lebanese politics, where the elite cartel implements a perverted form of the consociational political system.

Much speculation has therefore been circulating in the media on the nature of the expected settlement. Will it entail Hariri’s continued and facilitated rule in exchange for biting the bullet and renouncing the tribunal? Or will it simply include a mutual abandonment of the tribunal and the false witnesses’ dossier, which the opposition has been eager to resolve? More importantly is it still possible to halt the process in the Hague?

These questions remain unanswered, as the Lebanese once again look beyond their borders for a compromise to be brokered on their behalf.

Last week when the Lebanese Sunni Mufti held a prayer for rain, others held ‘rain dances’ in a tongue-in-cheek effort to end a 40-day drought and unseasonably warm weather. This weekend a strong storm finally unleashed itself on Lebanon. It remains to be seen if the Lebanese, whether by dance or prayer, will be able to weather another tempest set to unleash itself with the imminent indictment.

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