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Lebanon's ticking timebomb
With the impending special tribunal announcements, is Lebanon destined for further instability and chaos?
Last Modified: 18 Jan 2011 14:15
Saad Hariri, Lebanon's current caretaker Prime Minister, sat with US President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday, while his government fell apart back home in Lebanon [Getty]

Saad Hariri, Lebanon's current caretaker Prime Minister, sat with US President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday, while his government fell apart back home in Lebanon. The deliberate collapse of the government was orchestrated by the so-called March 8 coalition in a last attempt to end the country's cooperation with the United Nation's Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) before it issues indictments of the alleged assassins behind the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Hezbollah - whose members the STL is expected to indict - and its allies in the Syria and Iran backed March 8 coalition, collapsed the prepubescent unity government formed in late 2009 after all ten of its March 8 ministers resigned along with one of the supposedly neutral ministers appointed by the president. Saad Hariri, the younger son of Rafiq, and his US and Saudi Arabia backed March 14 coalition, watched as his government reverted to its dysfunctional state.

The collapse did not come as a complete shock for Lebanese, who are used to their government operating in a limited capacity in recent years, but who have also anticipated drastic changes as the STL readies to release its indictments.

Since the beginning, the STL has been mired in controversy further dividing an already unstable and war-torn country where justice is as foreign as the prosecutor leading the tribunal. The "false witnesses" whose testimony the UN's investigation initially used to go after Syria and its allies later turned out to be a scam, and this past weekend Lebanon's New TV aired explosive audio recordings of a 2006 meeting between Hariri and one of the "witnesses."

Confirmation

Hariri, who had previously denied meeting the "witnesses," has since confirmed the tapes' authenticity, which have caused further embarrassment to the prime minister. This, in addition to Hezbollah claims that the STL is an Israeli plot, has caused many Lebanese to be increasingly sceptical of the entire investigation.

Now, with the indictments already delivered to the pre-trial judge, Lebanon is in a state of panic as the country speculates about what repercussions the supposed hunt for justice will have on the country.

It was only in 1990 that Lebanon's 15 year civil war came to an official end. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the war whose leaders and their offspring still run the country today. The sectarian system of government, which was the main cause for the war, is still in place making Lebanon as divided as ever between its many sects, which are divided even further by multiple sectarian political parties. In addition to the internal tensions, the always looming threat of another Israeli war has left many Lebanese pessimistic about their country's future.

The critical situation Lebanon now finds itself in could have perhaps been avoided, or at least softened, had the government worked on finding a solution to the fallout that the STL's indictments are now sure to create. In September of last year, Syria and Saudi Arabia stepped in on behalf of their respective allies in Lebanon to assist in finding a solution to the rising tensions created by the STL.

Hariri, instead of acting as prime minister and working with his government in Beirut, remained outside the country for much of recent months leaving the fate of his country in the hands of the two Arab nations. Without its prime minister present, the cabinet was unable to convene and discuss the matter on its own.

Humiliation

To no surprise, March 8 leaders grew impatient. And after it was announced the Saudi-Syrian plan had failed last week, March 8's ministers resigned and humiliated Hariri minutes after he entered a meeting with Obama.

However, since being selected as prime minister in November 2009, Hariri has found himself somewhere between a rock and a hard place as the STL effectively tears apart his government and hastens what now seems like an inevitable internal conflict. Hariri cannot lead his unity government with the indictments fast approaching, nor can he halt Lebanon's cooperation with it as March 8 has pleaded he do.

Hariri's Sunni constituency have long waited for their sectarian leader to triumph in the campaign for "al-haqiqa" (the truth), and bring the perpetrators behind his father's killing to justice.

Hariri, who initially blamed Syria for the killing, has since lead a process of rapprochement and exonerated Damascus soon after being selected to head the unity government. For a brief period, Lebanon's unity government almost resembled one and not only in name. But the always present STL, and the insistence of its international supporters to see its work carried out, would ensure that whatever stability did exist in Lebanon, would not last for long.

One of the STL's biggest funders and most enthusiastic proponents is the US government, which managed to take time away from its busy schedule occupying Iraq and Afghanistan to focus on finding justice for a killing in Lebanon.

The search for real justice in the region

During Israel's devastating month-long war on Lebanon in 2006, which then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice infamously called the "birth pangs" of the new Middle East, more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed. Yet there has been no UN special tribunal, or any process by the US or the so-called international community to bring their killers to justice.

Last week, while current US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was condemning the resignation of March 8's ministers, Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanon. On the previous day, Israeli ground troops entered Lebanese territory and kidnapped a Christian farmer who they detained in Israel overnight before releasing him. Despite such acts happening on a regular basis, never have they been met with condemnation by the US, which has always let its ally act with impunity.

Had such a move happened the other way around, the US would not have reacted in the same way. In fact it was a similar move by Hezbollah when it captured two Israeli soldiers in 2006 to be used in a prisoner swap. The US called the incident "an unprovoked act of terrorism," and saw it as justification for Israel's subsequent all-out war on Lebanon for those 34 days.

The US refusing to have any relationship with Hezbollah - a mainstream political party in Lebanon - shows that its respect for Lebanon's sovereignty exists only as long as its allies are in power. Despite the Lebanese government's collapse happening within the same democratic system that Saad Hariri proudly acclaimed in 2009, the US has been quick to offer its condemnation of March 8's latest political manoeuvre even threatening to cut aid to Lebanon if it replaces Hariri with an ally.

The follies of intervention

All of this shows clear meddling and bias on the part of the US government with regard to Lebanese affairs that should bring into question its involvement in, and support for, any justice-seeking process inside the country.

That an international tribunal can succeed in bringing "al-haqiqa" to Lebanon - a country that has never had al-haqiqa - at this point is unlikely. Many of the known culprits - either Lebanese or foreign -responsible for the countless deaths of politicians and civilians in recent history have almost all gone unpunished for their acts. Many are close allies of those countries backing the STL.

If the STL is going to promote justice by finding Hariri's killers and provide decisive evidence, why stop there? Why not mandate the tribunal to prosecute all states, parties, and individuals responsible for Lebanese deaths in recent years, including Israel? As long as the US government maintains its "special friendship" with Israel, such a scenario will never happen.

When justice is selectively applied to a country like Lebanon it's bound to have disastrous consequences. In fact, it's been happening even before the collapse of the government. Since its formation, the unity government has done little other than discuss the STL and its repercussions. At the same time, Lebanese citizens have watched food and fuel prices skyrocket, as the water and electricity are regularly cut off in their homes due to frequent outages around the country. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and foreign workers continue to live with little to no rights.

Moving away from sectarian politics

Lebanon's inability to lead its own path to justice stems from its inability to form a democratic government. As long as the sectarian political model remains in place, political forces will forever be pinned against one another as they attempt to secure what's in their sect's best interest, and not that of their nation.  

A Lebanese government made up of its people and not its sects, is exactly what many independent voices have increasingly been calling for in recent years. Such a government could then decide for itself whether or not it wishes to pursue justice not only for the killing of Rafiq Hariri, but the numerous other political figures and ordinary civilians who have been killed in recent years.

However, with politicians already engaged in a war of words coupled with external meddling in the country, such a scenario seems like mere fantasy. With the STL's indictments expected to be made public soon, Lebanese civilians - who comprise the overwhelming majority of victims from the civil war and Israel's attacks on the country - are left to sit and wait, while greater powers decide their fate.

Matthew Cassel is a journalist and photographer from Chicago currently based in Beirut. He is also assistant editor of the online journal The Electronic Intifada.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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