Has it really been fifteen years? Tuesday’s final ruling on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is the end of an era. Like many of Lebanon’s crises, the high profile decision-makers rarely feel the heat.
Lower-level operatives pay the price. The acquittal for four of the five accused leaves open the door for much speculation, but it is more so the ruling that no direct evidence can be found to signify direct involvement by the Syrian regime or Hezballah’s leadership or organization as a whole in the direct killing of Rafik Hariri that will disappoint those hoping for high-level dramatics.
Just exactly who ordered the assassination, who funded the operation and who masterminded the attack will not quite ever be known, only imagined. That there is one guilty party will placate only those who were awaiting confirmation of some kind of culpability or justice.
Holes of evidence have emerged as far too circumstantial to place anyone at any one place at any one time. The only accused, Salim Ayyash, is a Hezballah member, which leaves open the door to much speculation. The obvious pitfalls of a justice system that relies on absolute certainty- beyond a reasonable doubt- is that it is hardly a term that can be applied in any way whatsoever to Lebanese, even Middle Eastern affairs.
Since when does anything in this crippled nation happen with absolute certainty? The case itself could not have been possible without the sleuthing work of Wissam Eid, an investigator for the Internal Security Forces, who used telecom data, analyzing millions of phone calls, to establish what has come to be known as the network of possible assailants, a network of operatives who operated in groups, each group of four with a single leader, who singularly communicated with other groups, through phone lines that were purchased long before the explosion in a cell phone shop in Tripoli. One or two mishaps, like sending a mistress a message on the wrong phone, is the closest the case comes to a smoking gun.
As the Special Tribunal for Lebanon draws to a close, it is clear the Lebanon of 2005 is of a distant past, unrecognizable in shape and in temper today. Then, there was a vibrant hope- contagious, electric. In short, an awakening of the Lebanese spirit in the Cedar revolution, for many a kind of political awakening of their shared civic identity, feeling kinship for a mass political body that had emerged spontaneously.
The spirit of possibility that reigned over those February days in 2005 following the killing of ex-Premier Rafik Hariri has diluted over the years, with every fresh assault of challenge and disappointment. The Lebanese have faced crisis after crisis, the latest of which was the tragic explosion of August 4th. Then, the Lebanese youth were called to action, invited to participate in the political process only to be sidelined later. Will the same happen to the demands of the street today, left to the politicking of political blocs and international partners?
As the verdict is delivered, the dawn of this new day couldn’t come any sooner. For so long the ghost of Rafik Hariri’s death has cast a shadow over the country, like a sin from the origins of another time, a case of Lebanese fratricide- brother against brother. The political effects at the time were enormous, warranting even the Special Tribunal itself, the first of its kind. Almost 1 billion dollars spent, 29 donor nations, a report that totals 2600 pages. Fifteen years in the making. Alas, there can be no real political earthquake to come of this court, and it will hardly have the power to impose any penalty on the accused, Salim Ayyash, the sole guilty party.
Salim Ayyash is then a symbol of what might yet be for the Lebanese political blocs determined to hold onto their power, regardless of how dire is the situation in Lebanon, which has gone from a country of traditional political stasis to near collapse. The ruling does, somehow, offer Lebanon’s beleaguered political blocs, who have lost much of their legitimacy on the ground and surely can no longer pretend they’re capable of working together, an opportunity. Perhaps backed by the imposition of President Macron and his coalition of international partners, who are taking this moment to reassert their presence in Lebanon, perhaps to tip the balance in favor of a Western-centric, GCC friendly political community in the country. This is the culmination of an evolutionary struggle that began in 2005, which traces its origins to the end of the civil war and the signing of the Taif agreement, in 1991.
The sight of British and French warships off the coast of Beirut to deliver aid, and a list of foreign diplomats of the EU bloc and the US, harkens back to a time where Beirut centered in the political consciousness of the world. The 1980s may paint an entirely different portrait to the Lebanon we know, but it was a playground of international interest regardless. The negotiated settlement at Taif soon became known as the Taif agreement, which effectively ended the war and returned political normalcy to Lebanon under a set of guidelines. As per the agreement, among many other determinations, all militias were to disarm except Hezballah, who was to maintain a resistance force until the Israeli occupation ended. The Syrian troops who were placed in Lebanon were to remain for two years, and to withdraw.
The Taif entrusted Lebanon back into the political sphere of influence of the Arab states. It was a forced moral and spiritual retreat from the West, from France’s tutelage and America’s eye. It could no longer deceive itself of a special status it enjoyed, a country of majority Christians in a hotly contested region. It had relinquished its quality as a sphere of influence for Western interests, representing a Western vision over its moral and intellectual characters, its economic and banking system, its cultural production. In the end, the West entrusted Lebanon to Syria, tiring of its inner squabbling and trusting an emerging brokered understanding between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon’s Sunnis.
At worst, the West may be indulging itself, dipping its feet into the blood hot soils of the Middle East for better headlines back home. At best, the West may be undoing its wrong, offering the Lebanese people to opt-out of the old Taif agreement, deviating at the very last minute from the political, social and moral direction the country is headed.
Euro skeptics and post-colonial theorists will cast aside the Macron accord as a simple dose of naïve imperialism and hybrid media stunt. But for many Lebanese, who remember trading the destruction and uncertainty of the civil war for the “stewardship” and tutelage of Syria will be dreaming of a different scenario this time around, one that finally puts to sleep the Sunni-Shiite, Iran-Saudi dichotomy and raises the specter of a civil society movement taking the reins, allowing Lebanon to stand on its two feet and hopefully even to thrive. While that may be a long way off, the first step is clear: righting a historic wrong.