With a civil war brewing in Bahrain and a hot war raging in Libya, Lebanon is at the periphery rather than the center of Middle East turmoil. That may change when indictments handed down by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri are unsealed in the coming weeks. The tribunal has reportedly filed amended indictments with more damning evidence that may name not only rank and file Hezbollah operatives, but senior officials from the party as well as Syrian security officers.
In the meantime, with the warm spring weather turning Beirut into an Eastern Mediterranean idyll, this is perhaps the most placid city in the Middle East. And it’s not clear the Lebanese are comfortable with that fact, for even the unlikeliest characters seem to be itching for a fight.
“No to the weapons” is the pro-democracy March 14 movement’s new rallying cry, meaning no to Hezbollah’s arms and signaling a relatively aggressive campaign from a pro-democracy coalition that has seemingly been rocked back on its heels the last few years. So when former prime minister and now opposition leader Saad Hariri took off his jacket and tie, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and joined the crowd during this year’s March 14 commemorations, his adversaries understood it as a challenge. His Sunni base and other supporters of the March 14 coalition approved the gesture, seeing his adoption of the casual, man-of-the-people style of American politics as a sign of Hariri’s eagerness to get down to business.
It’s true that Hariri fares much better in informal settings, where his relative youth (he’s 39, which for Arab politics is barely out of puberty), humor, and vulnerability are in stark contrast to the formal Hariri, squirming in an expensive suit and looking like he cannot read his cue cards. He seems to be more confident in his current role as head of the opposition than he was as head of the government—a government, it should be remembered, that was blocked at every turn by Hezbollah until it brought the government down two months ago. And even then Hariri managed to ensure that Lebanon would cooperate with the U.N. tribunal so that it could get to the final stage of its work—indictments against the murderers of his father and 22 others on February 14, 2005, as well as a string of subsequent political assassinations carried out against journalists, politicians, and civil society activists.
With Hezbollah increasingly on the defensive, this year’s March 14 festivities may have been the most successful, and the largest, since the initial 2005 demonstration that kicked off Lebanon’s “Independence Intifada” and sent Syrian troops back home after a 15-year occupation. Nonetheless, for all of Hariri’s newly minted charisma, the event was still marked by political incompetence. During the festivities, a large portrait of the Saudi monarch King Abdullah was unfurled from the rafters of the Virgin Megastore, a gesture that left some observers astonished, certain it was a stunt engineered by one of Hariri’s rivals in order to play up the fact that the Sunni leader criticizing Hezbollah for its relationship with Iran had his own foreign sponsor in Riyadh. Alas, it was no prank. The point was to show that the Saudis were standing with Hariri and March 14 rather than with Najib Mikati, the Sunni business-man and pol recently designated prime minister of the Hezbollah-led government. But the effect was to water down Hariri’s message about a free and sovereign Lebanon, whose future should be determined by and for the Lebanese people.
Worse yet, says independent Shia political activist Lokman Slim, “this was the same Saudi family that tried to sell out Lebanon to Syria, and the same king who has forbidden political protests in his own country and sent 1,000 troops into Bahrain to put down the Shia. What legitimate place does he have in a Lebanese political protest?”
Slim is also concerned that March 14’s “No to the weapons” rallying cry is likely to further alienate the Shia community. “Look, I’m not just against the weapons,” says Slim, “I’m against the whole resistance to Israel. But the Shia are going to understand ‘no to the weapons’ as ‘no to the Shia.’ Hezbollah has done a very good job of brainwashing the community that the weapons are an integral part of their identity, their dignity.”
For Slim, the question is, What happens to the Shia community once Hezbollah is gone? Will they be able to be integrated, finally, into the country’s social fabric, or will they be made to pay for the indignities that the Islamic resistance forced on the rest of Lebanon? Worse than the costly war with Israel instigated by Hezbollah in 2006 was the party’s coup against the democratically elected government, completed this January but initiated with the May 2008 siege, when Hezbollah slaughtered Sunnis in Beirut and attacked the Druze in the Chouf mountains. “Humiliation is a real emotion,” says Slim, and one for which the Shia may well be held accountable one day.
Still, cautious optimism is the mood in much of Lebanon of late, optimism that Hezbollah may be losing its grip. Besides the special tribunal, which may expose an outfit till now respected in the Sunni-majority Middle East for its resistance to Israel as the murderer of a major Sunni figure, Hezbollah’s financing is also being targeted. The group receives anywhere from $100 to $200 million a year from its sponsors in Tehran (which is now profiting from soaring oil prices), but for some time it has also pursued independent sources of income.
After designating a number of Hezbollah financiers who fund the group through illicit trade (conflict diamonds, weapons, and drugs) in Africa and Latin America, the Treasury Department last month also designated the Lebanese Canadian Bank as a “primary money laundering concern” used by an international drug-trafficking network moving almost $200 million a month, from which Hezbollah profited. With U.S. financial institutions severing their ties to the Lebanese Canadian Bank, some here say that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that Hezbollah’s funds are being drained. “It’s the Al Capone thing,” says Slim, meaning that the U.S. government is going after public enemy number one via its financial shenanigans.
From Slim’s perspective, Hezbollah should be seen in the same context as the dictatorial regimes across the region that either have already fallen or are now fighting for the privilege to rule, including Hezbollah’s Iranian sponsor and its patrons in Syria, where protests are picking up steam. According to Slim, this process of regional renovation all began in 2003 with the fall of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. “When that statue came down,” he says, “it made possible what was previously unimaginable. I saw the origins of Hezbollah, so I can imagine its end as well.”