When Lebanon’s oldest newspaper went to the newsstands blank one day this month, it sparked a guessing game about the publisher’s intentions. An-Nahar, published since the 1930s, went to press with empty pages and only the masthead, without offering any explanation. Speculation started immediately on social media. Was An-Nahar giving up on the printed product? Was this white fury at the way the world was going? Was it a comment on the state of the media or the state of the world?
In a way, it was a bit of both. Later that day, the editor-in-chief, Nayla Al Tueni, appeared at a news conference to express anger at Lebanon’s long-running political crisis. “People are tired and An-Nahar is tired of writing up your pretexts and repeated empty promises,” she said. An-Nahar was making a point about media complicity in Lebanon’s political dysfunction.
There is, certainly, a lot of blame to go around. In May, Lebanon held a parliamentary election for the first time since 2009. But the process of forming a power-sharing government has taken more than five months, with the designated prime minister, Saad Hariri, unable to agree with all sides on the distribution of ministries. In Lebanon’s complicated confessional system, the precise allocation of ministries along religious lines is of prime importance.
Repeated threats don’t appear to have focused the minds of the participants. Warnings have come not only from the media and political leaders, but from business and trade unions. Hariri has even warned that Lebanon’s economy, already fragile due to the Syrian civil war next door, could be at risk. International donors agreed to $11 billion in loans ahead of the election, but a new government is needed to sign off on the pledge. “If we think that the world will wait for us, we are wrong,” he warned in a televised interview at the start of October.
The details of the delay are complicated. As always Lebanon’s politics are the playing field for regional rivalries. Hezbollah is seeking to get its allies into government, most likely laying the groundwork for the eventual acceptance of the Assad regime as Syria’s legitimate government.
More domestically, the aging president, Michel Aoun, appears to be angling for a position for his son-in-law that would allow the latter to make an eventual run for the presidency.
Those concerns are the reason it has taken so long to reach an agreement. But the single greatest threat to the formation of a new government has nothing to do with the politics of the present, but justice for the past.
After many years of delays, the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the 2005 bombing that killed Hariri’s father, Rafik, is due to report. The tribunal concluded its closing arguments at the end of September and the judges are expected to issue a judgment soon, perhaps in a matter of weeks. It is widely expected that the tribunal will decide that four Hezbollah figures are guilty of the assassination.
Saad Hariri was in the Netherlands, where the tribunal is based, in September, attending the closing arguments and spoke of the need for justice. At the same time, as he tries to form a government that Hezbollah will be a part of, it would be profoundly unhelpful if the verdict came in before a government were formed.
Hezbollah has refused to hand over the four men, and has indicated it considers the tribunal irrelevant. Yet the final judgment of the tribunal will be an important event that will garner considerable public attention, in Lebanon and beyond. A guilty verdict could lead to European countries cutting ties to Hezbollah’s political wing. Hezbollah could refuse to participate in government talks, creating more deadlock.
And yet, as unhelpful as a guilty verdict before a new government were formed would be, it would be more unhelpful if a guilty verdict came in after.
That could pull Hezbollah out of the new government, causing it to collapse, or put Hariri in the indelicate position of presiding over a government that includes his father’s killers. There could be mass protests on the streets of Lebanon, and maybe worse.
The best outcome, as so often in Lebanese politics, would be something that allows the political can to be kicked down the road. Media reports have suggested that Hariri has sought a postponement of the judgment, but the STL is independent of the Lebanese government.
Hariri, then, faces an intractable political problem, torn between a son’s desire for justice for the past and a politician’s desire to prevail in the politics of the present.
Lebanon needs both. It is self-evident that a working government is a necessity. But knowing who killed a former prime minister also matters greatly. The killing, after all, not only implicated Hezbollah, but also the Assad regime. It matters for Lebanon’s democracy and its sovereignty that those who ordered and carried out the killing are named, so that it is understood that, even 13 years after the murder, justice will eventually prevail. In such a small, mixed society, a legal order is the best defense against future crimes.
Judging by the mood music coming out of the palatial Hariri compound in downtown Beirut, it is Hariri the politician that is temporarily trumping Hariri the son. For Lebanon, as much as for the heirs of Rafik Hariri, or “Mr Lebanon,” that pause must only be temporary.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
Photo by Bas CZERWINSKI/ANP/AFP