Fifteen years after the end of the civil war, 2005 shook Lebanon to the core, writes Hicham Safieddine
Click to view caption|
SMOKE AND FIRE: After Al-Hariri was assassinated in February, Syrian soldiers began leaving Lebanon in April
On 14 February, around 12.50pm, a motorcade of six cars left Nejmeh Square facing the Houses of Parliament in downtown Beirut. Moments later, a huge blast rocked the Lebanese capital, and the history of Lebanon changed forever. Former Lebanese prime minister and strongman Rafik Al-Hariri and prominent ex-economy and trade minister Bassel Fuleihan were killed as they were passing near the coastal St George Hotel. Ever since, Lebanon has been in a state of political upheaval bordering on turmoil -- the worst since the end of the civil war in 1990. And the future as yet does not look promising.
From having regained its name as a top tourist destination, Lebanon reverted to being synonymous with assassinations and late night market bombings. Even its example as an Arab country that liberated its land from Israeli occupation without concessions has been questioned: Lebanon is now unsure of keeping or disarming its Shia resistance force, Hizbullah. Overnight it turned from being Syria's strongest ally and negotiating card against Israel into its Achilles heel; a potential gateway for undermining the Baathist regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad.
To be sure, these dramatic transformations had roots in increasingly tense relations between Syria and some sectors of Lebanese society. They reached boiling point on that day in February. The killing of Al-Hariri triggered a wave of massive street demonstrations that called for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, as well as counter-demonstrations in support of Syria. Over half a million people filled the streets of the capital on 8 March and 14 March to support and denounce the Syrian government respectively.
These tensions have not subsided. "People are becoming more and more short-tempered and divided everyday, and politicians fuel this division under the table, while calling for dialogue above it," Jihad Bazzi, youth page editor at Al-Safir newspaper, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Prior to his death, Al-Hariri had opposed Syrian pressure to extend President Emile Lahoud's term for three more years in violation of the Lebanese constitution. The former prime minister's supporters accused Syria, therefore, of killing him to eliminate anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon. Syria vehemently denies these accusations. Nonetheless, widespread discontent among the Lebanese, and international pressure spearheaded by the United States, forced Syrian troops out at the end of April.
The Syrian withdrawal created a new reality in which different Lebanese factions lined up with or against further escalation vis-à-vis Syria. Ordinary people's hopes of moving on with rebuilding the country in light of a new sense of sovereignty gained from the Syrian disengagement were shattered as political rivalry caused division among groups who had united in their call for Syria's withdrawal but in little else.
Parliamentary elections held the promise of the Lebanese choosing leaders freely, without external influence. The elections were praised as the freest since the onset of civil war in the 1970s. But guarantees of election reform, to eliminate sectarianism, were shelved as traditional alliances among the numerous different sects that mark Lebanon's history prevailed. In the wake of the elections, a coalition government was formed. The majority of ministers were those of the majority bloc in parliament led by Al-Hariri's son, Saad Al-Hariri, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Five ministers, nonetheless, were from the alliance of Shia parties -- Amal and Hizbullah.
For most of its tenure, the new government's agenda was overshadowed by the fallout of the UN-led investigation into the killing of Al-Hariri. Prior to elections, a fact-finding mission was dispatched to Lebanon. The UN Security Council then decided to establish a full-fledged investigative commission led by German judge Detlev Mehlis. The investigation, whose mandate was extended twice and is poised to continue its work next year under a new commissioner, polarised the Lebanese. Some praised the professionalism of Mehlis, while others cast doubts over the neutrality of the investigation.
Much speculation accompanied Mehlis's work. His two reports pointed an accusatory finger at the Lebanese- Syrian security apparatus that had dominated Lebanon over the past 15 years, but revealed little hard evidence that could be used to secure a conviction. In the course of the investigation, four high ranking Lebanese security chiefs were arrested and detained as suspects. Although implicating Syrian officials did not follow, a diplomatic tussle between the UN and Syria over the protocol of the latter's cooperation with the investigation did. Several Security Council resolutions were issued to grant the commission a free hand in its probe, and to pressure Syria to acquiesce to the investigation's demands.
On a parallel track, several Arab mediation attempts -- namely those of the Arab League, Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia -- were initiated to eke out a compromise from the Syrians and the Lebanese. Hard-nosed diplomacy by all parties ultimately culminated with Damascus allowing five of its top politicians, including its former intelligence chief in Lebanon, Rustum Gazali, to be interrogated by Mehlis's team. The officials in question gave testimonies initially in Damascus and later in Vienna.
Back in Lebanon, political assassinations intermittently shattered any sense of normality in the street throughout the year. As the Mehlis investigation continued, calls for establishing an international court to prosecute suspects sparked a political crisis. The last straw was the official request by the Lebanese government for the establishment of a tribunal with an international character, and for expanding the investigation's mandate to encompass other assassinations and failed attempts since October of last year. The request was issued in an emergency meeting following the 12 December assassination of prominent journalist and MP Gibran Tueni.
Tueni had spearheaded anti-Syrian campaigns throughout the 1990s, and although his family stopped short of accusing Syria of his death, his supporters had no qualms pointing fingers at Damascus. Syria denied involvement. Ministers representing Hizbullah and Amal suspended their membership in cabinet pending a commitment by other members of the coalition to take decisions by consensus only, and not majority voting. There are no signs of a new deal emerging, despite efforts by parliament speaker Nabih Berri to launch a dialogue among competing viewpoints.
As the year comes to a close, questions that have been dogging the Lebanese, such as the future of Hizbullah's weapons and the presidency of Emile Lahoud, remain unresolved. Presidential contender Michael Aoun, a former army general who returned from exile following Al-Hariri's death, has laid blame in the past month on the Lebanese authorities for not assuming responsibility for what takes place in Lebanon more than six months after the last Syrian soldier left the country.
In the face of continuing stagnation, Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), has called for the resignation of the present cabinet and the formation of a round-table government. It is not clear how different that government would be from the current one, or whether it would be capable of decision-making with so many conflicting voices participating in it. But Aoun has repeatedly said there is no other way out, and that "dialogue is the road to salvation."
FPM spokesperson Antoine Nasrallah says the presidential issue might gain headlines next year, but Aoun's priority will be saving the republic itself. Nasrallah says the government crisis has reached a point of no return, and that the country as a whole is suffering because of it. He told the Weekly that, "all factions feel that we are in a predicament, and real problems are going to face us next year. Still the Lebanese are optimistic by nature and hope things will progress rather than deteriorate."