Tuesday’s ruling by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon tasked with elucidating who murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has given Hezbollah and Syria the exoneration they were hoping for. The fact that Salim Ayyash, one of the four defendants who were on trial in absentia and the only one convicted, belonged to Hezbollah does not prove, according to the court, that Hezbollah or Syria knew about, planned or perpetrated the murder that has been rocking Lebanon since 2005.
The trial lasted six years and cost tens of millions of dollars, paid for partly by Lebanon’s government from its empty coffers. Hundreds of witnesses were heard; thousands of documents and photos were presented to the judges; and at the end, it seemed that everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Hariri’s 2005 murder in an explosion that rocked Beirut, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds more, caused the deepest political rift in Lebanon since the civil war that had ended six years earlier.
Lebanon became divided into two main blocs: the “14th of March” bloc (named after the giant protests held against Syria and Hezbollah), comprised of anti-Syrian parties and movements and led by Saad al-Hariri; and the “8th of March” bloc, its name denoting the gigantic pro-Syria rally organized by Hezbollah and its supporters. This second bloc included Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, who is currently Lebanon’s president. These two blocs and their names currently represent the two sides facing each other in Lebanon’s political arena. The great achievement of the 14th of March bloc was in forcing Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and implement, after six years, the Taif Agreement (National Reconciliation Accord) that ended the civil war.
The rift did not stop Saad al-Hariri, Rafik’s son, from reaching agreements and coordinating positions with Hezbollah when he was prime minister. Hariri said on Tuesday that he accepts the ruling of the tribunal, in which he has great trust. Despite Hezbollah’s exoneration, Hariri demanded that the organization hand over Ayyash, saying that he would not rest until Ayyash appeared before the court and served his time. But he stressed that the tribunal’s job was not to point an accusing finger at any political group, thereby signaling his supporters and rivals alike that he wouldn’t exploit the ruling in order to launch a political or public campaign against Hezbollah.
His announcement did not stem from some upwelling of forgiveness, which would have been uncharacteristic of him. Hariri is presently in the middle of a political dispute at a time in which feverish attempts to form a new temporary government are underway, following the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab in the wake of the Beirut port explosion. His name comes up time and again as a candidate for the job, mainly due to his close ties with France and Saudi Arabia and he’s supported by President Aoun, who has spelled out that there is no other candidate as far as he’s concerned, and that anyone with someone better should bring him forward.
Paradoxically, Hariri is also supported by the Shi’ite movements Amal and Hezbollah, which managed to reach understandings with him. That is what enabled the government to function before it resigned.
Hariri has presented a number of conditions before he would head a new government, including obtaining special powers to appoint cabinet members and to implement economic reforms. He also demands the exclusion of his rival Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law, and demands the approval of the Saudi government.
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Experience teaches that Hariri can scale back his list of demands when necessary or when it serves his interests. The government is supposed to be a caretaker government tasked with preparing for elections, and compiling a realistic plan for economic reform in compliance with the demands of the International Monetary Fund. However, it could turn out to be a long-term government after all, persisting as long as there is no agreement on a law governing the next election.
The political leadership will do everything it can to preserve its power bases, including the distribution of positions of influence and of course chunks of the budget, while convincing the international community, especially donor states, that Lebanon will take significant steps to resolve its political problems. Depending on these contortions is the government’s ability to get the $11 billion the donor states promised in 2018, as well as a $10 billion loan from the IMF. But preserving things as they are while obtaining long-term financial assistance doesn’t depend only on the political leadership. The protest movements, which demonstrated their strength by deposing two prime ministers, will have to examine the composition of the new government and its policies and decide whether they are prepared to give Hariri another opportunity, after he was marked by them as someone who significantly contributed to the economic and political crisis in Lebanon.
However, these protest movements have no defined leadership that could suggest an alternate prime minister. Their power lies in their ability to veto, through popular protests, any government that is formed, or its policies. If a new government can prove that it can obtain significant aid for Lebanon with the backing of the international community, these movements might give it a chance, mainly because they have no alternative.
This means that any new government, including one headed by Hariri, will need the support of Hezbollah in order to adopt the necessary economic measures. Criticizing Hezbollah and suggesting that it must bear some responsibility for the explosion in Beirut, as well as demands that it disarm, do not impress the organization, which knows full well what its political power is, as well as its ability to dictate the conditions under which the government operates.
Hezbollah, which waited tensely for the tribunal’s ruling, could employ its exoneration in order to navigate its way through Lebanon’s political turmoil from a position of power, now that the black cloud overshadowing its political activity since the murder of Prime Minister Hariri 15 years ago has been lifted.