Lebanon’s demise has turned food blogger Anthony Rahayel into an unlikely protagonist in the fight for its future.
Beirut, Lebanon – Rasha al-Ameen was holding up a placard bearing photographs of Lokman Slim, the Lebanese writer, activist and prominent Hezbollah critic, who was shot dead last week. She wept as the cameras covering the protest filmed.
Al-Ameen worked with Lokman at Beirut’s UMAM Documentation and Research Centre, archiving some of the bloodiest chapters in Lebanon’s history, and saw him as an inspiration at an exacting time for her country.
In a sudden outpouring of emotion, al-Ameen screamed: “Lokman is still alive!” She shouted that his killers could not silence dissent.
“Sifar Khauf, which means zero fear, that’s what Lokman used to say,” she said. “We are repeating it today. His killers cannot scare us.”
At 2:16am local time on the night of February 3, Slim’s wife Monika Borgmann anxiously tweeted: “Lokman is not answering his phone and he has not been seen since yesterday, 8 PM. Please share any information… #LokmanSlim.”
Borgmann was worried because her husband had not returned home, and because the family lived under the constant fear of what, it turned out, had transpired that night.
In the early hours of the next day, the body of the 58-year-old was found in his car in a pool of his blood in Hezbollah-dominated south Lebanon. He had been shot four times, in the head and the back.
While his killers have not been identified, his family and friends have pointed the finger of blame at Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia and political party in Lebanon. Slim was a vociferous critic of the group and had said in the past that if any attempt were made on his life, Hezbollah should be held responsible.
“We don’t know the exact reason why he was killed now but he had been getting threats from Hezbollah for a long time,” said al-Ameen.
Hezbollah has denied any role in the killing, accusing opponents of aiming “to incite chaos” for political gain and calling for a transparent investigation.
Hatim Hamoud, also present at the protest, said he had come to pay his respects to a co-ideologue. “Lokman was a communist and a democrat,” said Hamoud. “He was killed in the south. Not an ant can move there without Hezbollah knowing.”
Hamoud, like many others, voiced concern that Lebanon might return to the days of political killings and bombings that it witnessed between 2004 and 2008.
“The well-locked iron gate on political killings has reopened with Lokman’s murder and we suspect we will see more assassinations of critics,” he told Al Jazeera.
Slim’s killing has generated mixed emotions among the Lebanese, who have been trying for 16 months to overthrow the governing elite and replace the old sect-based power-sharing system with a new secular social contract.
While activists say they are determined to stay the course, they admit that Slim’s killing has renewed old fears.
Luna Safwan, a young and outspoken Lebanese journalist who has often been threatened online for expressing anti-Hezbollah views, said she received “GIFs of cars exploding”.
Many of the assassinations in the 2000s were carried out by car-bombs, including that of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005.
“I feel that freedom of speech is threatened, not only me personally,” she told Al Jazeera from Beirut. “Some entities don’t want us to do our work and the only way to send a clear message about it is through assassinations. This reminds us of what being opinionated meant back in 2005 in Lebanon.”
Safwan’s brother Jad Safwan works at the Samir Kassir Foundation, an NGO named after the prominent Palestinian journalist who was killed, also in a car bomb blast, just months after Hariri.
Jad attended the protest against Slim’s killing, held at Kassir’s marbled memorial with his bronze statue sitting under a canopy of trees. He said it seemed futile to try to seek justice.
“We rarely heard of any development in the investigations in Samir’s case and it has been so many years,” said Jad.
Hariri’s son and current prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, said at the time “the blood-stained hands that assassinated Rafiq Hariri are the same ones that assassinated Samir Kassir”, implying the involvement of the Syrian government and its local allies Hezbollah.
The trial in Rafiq Hariri’s assassination case was conducted by an international court over a period of 11 years and convicted just one of the four Hezbollah members accused of homicide. But since the trial was held in absentia, and Hezbollah is believed to be protecting him, even he remains scot-free.
In the other assassinations of journalists, writers, and activists, no one has been indicted.
A culture of impunity has prevailed and no one now expects there to be an honest investigation into Slim’s killing, much less do they envisage a possibility the culprits might go to prison.
“We are extremely pessimistic,” said Ayman Mhanna, the executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation. “Now other prominent critics are under threat too. In any other country, law enforcement would get into action if people were threatened in this way, but not here.
“These law enforcement agencies have received billions from France, Germany, the US, and the UK to purchase state of art equipment, they have been trained by them. For what? Is the equipment only to be used against protesters, as a report by Amnesty International said, or to spy on journalists? This is the question for western parliamentarians to ask and find out what is done with their taxpayers’ money.”
Randa Slim, a relative of Lokman Slim’s and an analyst on regional politics, said an international effort was required to try to seek justice in Lebanon. “It is going to require long-term and sustained political organizing, lobbying, and legal work inside Lebanon and abroad to realize that,” she said.
Hundreds gathered at a memorial service for Slim, to pay their respects to a man who may not have been a household name in the country but was an opinion-maker nonetheless and popular in the west as well as with local intellectuals.
Those who killed him may never be found guilty in a country where the wheels of justice are corroded. But in the minds of many Lebanese, Slim will remain alive as a member of an elite group of activists who dared to speak their mind – even at personal risk.
“He was a kind man who cared deeply about Lebanon and never gave up on his ideals of a country where rule of law, freedom of expression, accountability, and justice should prevail,” Randa Slim, his relative, remembered. “He spoke truth to power and eventually paid the ultimate price.”