The Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is finally going to issue its verdict on 7 August, saying who killed former Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri in a massive Beirut explosion back in February 2005. His followers have waited for fifteen years, placing a billboard in central Beirut, counting days until the verdict was issued.
Three years ago, the counter stopped working; the number of days was higher than what the electronic screen could display.
The STL was founded by United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1757 and began its work on March 1, 2009.
When pushing for an international court back in March 2006, Hariri did not have the ambition of becoming prime minister yet, and when it started occurring to him, he did not think that Hezbollah would last so long. Many thought that it would collapse, either during the 2006 Lebanon war or the 2011 Syrian conflict
Hariri was considered the mirror of Lebanese hope, widely acclaimed for rebuilding the country after its civil war came to a closure in 1990. He enjoyed cordial relations with practically everybody, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Iran, France and the United States.
His murder sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East, especially after fingers were pointed at Hezbollah and a handful of Syrian officers, triggering a nationwide revolt that forced the Syrians out of Lebanon in April 2005.
The STL is expected to name at least one Hezbollah operative, Salim Ayyash, with “intentional homicide,” although he remains at bay and is standing trial in absentia in the Netherlands.
A country in collapse
The Hariri saga has been terrible for Lebanon from Day One. It left behind a grieving nation and a stagnated political system that was never able to revive itself. Its final chapter will be not much better than its first due to the sad situation that Lebanon is in today.
The country is facing its worst economic crisis in modern history, which forced it to default on its foreign debt last March. That, topped with outbreak of Covid-19 and total meltdown of its banking sector, has brough the economy to a grinding halt.
A severe dollar crisis is holding people by the throat, as their lifetime savings remain trapped in banks at grossly devaluated rates. Demonstrations are a daily scene in Lebanon now, often accompanied by brutal reprisal from the security services.
The government of Hassan Diab is crippled, unable to restore security, attract investment, or find new jobs. Lebanese ministers are currently engaged in talks with the IMF, aimed at securing a $9-10 billion loan. Those talks, however, are going nowhere.
With all of that as background, what will Hassan Diab do when the STL verdicts are issued next month? Justice Minister Marie Claude Najm has an obligation to coordinate future policy with the STL, and she is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which currently enjoys cordial relations with Saad Al Hariri, Rafik Al Hariri’s son and political heir.
Diab has little obligation towards him, however, and Hariri sees him as an intruder to politics of the Sunni Muslim community, parachuted into the premiership by Hezbollah.
The lack of trust is mutual, and Diab has been systematically trying to purge the civil service from Hariri appointees, saying privately he will eradicate Harrirism from Lebanon. But Diab seems to have a mushrooming political ambition, however, which cannot survive without grassroots support from Sunni Muslims.
If he wants their backing in any future election, he ought to be careful with how he deals with the STL. If he writes it off as politicized and corrupt, he runs the high risk of losing whatever razor-thin support he currently has within his own constituency.
If he accepts its verdicts, however, or simply refuses to condemn them, he will be automatically toppled by Hezbollah. The party currently controls the state, through allies at the presidency and speakership of parliament, and it has three seats in the Diab government, in addition to a parliamentary block of 13 MPs.
With allies it has a majority in the 128-seat chamber, capable of bringing down any government. They moved heaven and earth to make him premier, however, and would certainly want to avoid such a scenario, fearing a Hariri comeback.
Looking for closure
But even if that happens, however, there is little that Hariri can do to bring his father’s case to a closure. Due to its military might and political weight, Hezbollah has a final say in whoever makes it to the premiership in Lebanon. At best, it will simply refuse working with him, should he try to arrest any of its members or ship them off to the Netherlands.
At worse, Hezbollah will use its military superiority to bring him down. The last time Hariri’s ally, former Prime Minister Fouad Al Siniora tried to dismantle Hezbollah’s telecommunications network at Beirut Airport in 2008, the party took over the country in a matter of hours, sending troops to the streets of Beirut.
Hariri knows that recent history only too well. During his most recent tenure at the premiership, he wanted to postpone the STL verdicts, realizing that they would put him in an embarrassing situation with Hezbollah, which was officially represented with two ministers in his cabinet.
When pushing for an international court back in March 2006, Hariri did not have the ambition of becoming prime minister yet, and when it started occurring to him, he did not think that Hezbollah would last so long. Many thought that it would collapse, either during the 2006 Lebanon war or the 2011 Syrian conflict.
That fact that it has survived, along with its complete arsenal, makes it hard for Hariri.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.