Lethargy in Lebanon

          There are two major and long-standing areas of controversy in Lebanon – one political, the other judicial – and a casual observer might be forgiven for believing that things were on the move in both. It would be a flawed perception.
          On the political front Lebanon, although log-jammed nationally, is in the midst of municipal elections. The voting is taking place in four phases, governorate by governorate, around the country. The first poll was held on May 8 in the capital, Beirut.
          These, the only elections to be held in Lebanon since 2010, are providing Lebanese citizens with their first chance to react to the vast influx of refugees into the country as a result of the Syrian civil war, and the paralyzing crisis in garbage collection and disposal lasting some nine months, and only partially resolved in March.
          The first phase of the elections indicates that neither factor has weighed very heavily with the public. If the Beiruti electorate has demonstrated anything, it has demonstrated apathy. Voter turnout was only some 20 percent and, despite the emergence of a go-getting party of young activists promising reform all round – Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) – all 24 seats on the council were won by an alliance of “traditional” politicians, led by former prime minister Saad Hariri. The result was pretty conclusive: Hariri’s list 60 percent of the vote, Beirut Madinati 40 percent.
          The stalemate on the national political scene – a result of Lebanon’s immensely complex power-sharing administration – also shows little signs of resolution. Lebanon’s politicians, hamstrung by conflicting interests, have repeatedly postponed the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June 2013, and the country has been without a president since May 2014. Amid this political impasse, municipal elections were the only available means of generating political accountability. What happened in Beirut in the first phase does not inspire much confidence that the log-jam will be broken very soon.
           Some did pin their hopes on the new Beirut Madinati party. The deterioration in basic services ­– uncollected rubbish, worsening electricity cuts, unreliable public transport – had reached such a state that a group of activists formed Madinati and published a 10-point policy programme that focused on practical family needs, such as transport, water, rubbish, natural heritage, housing, public and green spaces and community services.
           But Rome was not built in a day. Lebanese voters have a tradition of blindly supporting their sectarian leaders, and it will clearly take more than one election to shift this to voting for candidates who reflect their policy concerns.
          Sloth also marks the interminable judicial process to determine who was guilty of the assassination of Lebanon’s one-time Prime Minister, and to bring the culprits to justice.
          Just before noon on St Valentine’s day 2005 – February 14 – a motorcade swept along the Beirut seafront. In one of cars sat Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri – father of Saad, winner of the Beirut municipal elections. As the line of vehicles reached the Hotel Saint Georges, a security camera captured a white Mitsubishi truck alongside the convoy. Seconds later a massive explosion shook the city. In the midst of the carnage Rafik Hariri, along with 22 other people, lay dead. Some 200 were injured. The blast left a crater on the street at least 10-metres wide and two metres deep.
          Ten days later then-UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible for the attack. In doing so he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process. Now in its tenth year, it is currently under the aegis of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the STL), a body voted into existence by the UN Security Council in 2007, formally established in 2009, and now, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, comparable to some large commercial enterprise.
          Operating on a budget of over $150 million, half of which is provided by the Lebanese government, the STL court consisting of 11 judges sits in The Hague. Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office. Located within the STL building is a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.
          Annan’s fact-finding mission recommended an independent international enquiry. Six months later a second UN report concluded that the white truck seen on the security camera outside the Hotel Saint Georges had carried some 1,000 kilograms of explosive. Basing its findings on key witnesses and a variety of evidence, including patterns of telephone calls between specific prepaid phone cards that connected prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials to events surrounding the crime, it concluded that these officials had been planning the assassination from as far back as mid-2004.
          So the finger was pointing at Syria and its Hezbollah supporters inside Lebanon. But Lebanese public opinion pre-empted this conclusion. Syria had been enforcing Big Brother control over Lebanese affairs for decades. Rafik Hariri had been actively seeking to loosen Syria’s oppressive grip, and had become a thorn in the side of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
          Following Hariri’s assassination a massive protest was organized in Martyrs’ Square in the heart of downtown Beirut, denouncing the atrocity and demanding that Syrian troops be expelled from the country. This so-called Cedar Revolution led to a diplomatic coalition, with the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia at its helm. On April 26, 2005, after some three months of civil agitation, the last Syrian troops left Lebanon.
          It took another four years of fact-finding by the United Nations International Investigation Commission (UNIIC) before sufficient additional and convincing evidence had been collected to enable the STL to be set up. Even so, largely because of blocking tactics employed by Hezbollah officials inside Lebanon, the five identified defendants have not been apprehended and the trial is being held in their absence. They are named as: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassab Oneissi, Sassad Hassan Sabra, and Hassan Habib Merhi.
          The trial of Ayyash et al. began on 16 January 2014, nine years after the Hariri assassination, but it was diverted for over a year by a number of side judicial issues. It was only on 9 May 2016 that the court resumed hearings. When or if they will end is lost in the mists of the future. So, too, apparently, is a date for the long-delayed parliamentary elections, to say nothing of a time when the country will again be blessed with a president.
          Clearly nothing moves very fast in Lebanon. Inertia seems preferable to the conflict engendered by action.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014”. He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com