The debate over whether to attend the commemoration this weekend of Rafik Hariri’s assassination has divided the March 14 faithful. Some will be present on Sunday, others not. But at a moment like this one it is worth recalling what the Independence Intifada of 2005 was really about. It was about Lebanon itself - its contradictory, antagonistic, pluralistic, paradoxically liberal instincts, but also the sectarianism that gave rise to all these characteristics. There is an argument today that the ideals of the Independence Intifada were betrayed by the politicians back then, and again last year when they followed up the March 14 victory in legislative elections with an endorsement of Hizbullah’s weapons and a Saudi-imposed reconciliation with Syria that, to some degree, overturned the gains made five years ago. This reasoning is justified but incomplete.

The essential driver of the Independence Intifada was sectarianism. We surely have to qualify that thought by acknowledging the essential role played between February 14 and March 14 by an educated, mostly Christian middle class that kept alive the daily protests at Martyrs Square, in conjunction with youths from all communities who manned the tent city there. By and large the primary motives of these people were idealistic, not sectarian, and without them holding the ground, the security services would have easily stifled the dissenters.

However, there were three defining days in the weeks after the Hariri assassination, and their particular power derived from the fact that they emerged from the recesses of Lebanon’s sectarian makeup, with its particular genius for imposing equilibrium. The first was the Hariri funeral; the second, the March 8 rally organized by Hizbullah to “thank” Syria; and the third, the then-opposition’s rejoinder on March 14.

While the funeral was “national” in character, and multisectarian, both the large numbers involved and the moment’s particular impetus were the consequence of massive Sunni participation, as the community came out in force to condemn the murder of a Sunni leader. March 8, in turn, was primarily a Hizbullah-led Shiite reaction to weeks of anti-Syrian behavior, perceived as a challenge to Hizbullah and therefore to the Shiites.

Then came March 14, the ultimate distillation of Lebanon’s chaotic pluralism. Everyone was united in wanting Syria out, but then things became more complicated. The large numbers of Sunnis participating did so as a riposte against the Shiites the week before. The Aounists were principally concerned with bringing back their leader from his exile in France. The supporters of the Lebanese Forces were there above all to secure Samir Geagea’s release from prison. And buffeted by these diverse currents were individuals who may well have shared each or all of these aims, but whose primary purpose was to defend the vision of a Lebanon that could transcend its discord and do away with the overbearing political leaders to forge a modern, progressive, representative society.

In retrospect, this group was a minority. Undoubtedly many at Martyrs Square would have supported such a vision if asked. Yet when it came time to act upon it, they went in other directions. The politicians proved far more popular than the idealists presumed, and even before legislative elections took place in May and June 2005 their parochial calculations had won the day. At best, one could say that sectarianism, by imposing equilibrium on all, by balancing off contending political or social forces, created spaces in which Lebanese liberalism could thrive - a paradoxical liberalism, to be sure, for being built on often illiberal institutions.

That’s why the discussion today about the meaning of the Hariri commemoration seems so detached from reality. It is largely occurring between the idealists. One can only respond by saying two things: there will be a good turnout this Sunday because the leaders, keen to gain approval for their latest policies, will ensure it; and this detail will reconfirm how marginal the idealists are in shaping what happens next in Lebanon. But since bitterness is in the air, let’s at least give the idealists their due. In 2005 they were at the forefront demanding the truth about who had killed Rafik Hariri and all those who followed him - from Samir Kassir to Wissam Eid and including the Lebanese and foreigners who died in numerous bomb attacks. Today, the prospect that the guilty will be punished seems negligible. And by the guilty we mean those who gave the orders, not the underlings who committed the crimes, knew about them and failed to stop them, or who tampered with evidence.

Last week, Lebanon was honored with a visit by the president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Antonio Cassese. He reassured us that the tribunal was ready to perform, but that there was no deadline for indictments. Explaining the ongoing delay, Cassese observed: “All acts of terrorism are much more complicated than war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” Why? Because “[t]errorist acts involve secret cells. There’s no clear chain of command or hierarchy.”

Perhaps he knows what he’s talking about, but the first investigator appointed by the United Nations, Detlev Mehlis, had less murky a reading of things. As he explained in a 2006 interview: “The Hariri case is an unusual one. Usually in investigations you start at the bottom and work your way up. In the Hariri case we started pretty much at the top and worked down. We had an accurate view of how the assassination took place from above, but less clear a view of what happened on the ground.”

In other words, Mehlis had a fairly lucid sense of the chain of command and hierarchy, requiring only a competent investigation at the bottom to fill out the empty spaces. We didn’t get one from Serge Brammertz, and even if Daniel Bellemare eventually finds something, he will very likely not point a finger at the real perpetrators in the Syrian regime.

The “Truth” was a potent slogan back in 2005, but the Lebanese, both leaders and obedient followers, are in a different mood today. That’s why the Hariri commemoration feels so hollow to so many. The idealists may have read too much into events five years ago, but they were entitled to expect justice for the victims. Even that is being denied them today.

 

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