Letter from Lebanon: Where Justice Seems Very Far Away

The summer break is officially over in Lebanon. At about 5pm yesterday, a roughly 40 kg bomb placed in a Mercedes was detonated in a bustling part of Sin el-Fil district of Beirut. The immediate target was member of Parliament (MP) Antoine Ghanim of the right-wing Phalange party and pro-government March 14 coalition, the fourth MP to be assassinated since former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s murder in March 2005 split the country and paralyzed the state.

Six other civilians were killed and over 50 wounded in the blast, with the vast majority of Lebanese both apprehensive and disgusted with a political class that has failed them politically, socially, economically, and security-wise.

The real target of yesterday’s assassination, however, was the apparently not-far-off consensus among key government and opposition players seeking to resolve the crisis enveloping the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for next week. March 14 currently holds a slim (though disputed) Parliamentary majority-now, tragically, made even slimmer-and has hinted that it could break from the traditional constitutional interpretation and elect a president by a simple majority rather than the customary two-thirds required quorum. This has infuriated opposition figures who consider the current pro-US government of Fouad Siniora to be illegitimate and supportive of US-Israeli desires to disarm the resistance.

Following several months of futile negotiations and bitter recriminations from both sides, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri recently launched a last-ditch compromise initiative which was widely seen to have achieved a break through. As former President Amin Gemeyal correctly noted: “This is how Lebanese politics work. At the last quarter-hour, everybody realizes that the bargaining time is up, and they would put all the papers on the table and agree on a compromise that would save the country. The alternative is disastrous.”

Berri’s compromise requires the opposition–which includes Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement lead by General Michel Aoun, the most popular Christian leader in Lebanon–to participate in a Parliament session on 25 September to elect a new President in return for explicit recognition by March 14 that a two-thirds parliamentary majority is indeed required for the election as per the Lebanese Constitution. After this, a national unity government would be appointed.

After receiving the blessing by the leader of March 14 coalition, Saad Hariri, Speaker Berri was due to meet with the Maronite (Christian) Patriarch, who serves as a power broker among the competing presidential candidates (who must be Maronite Christian according to Lebanon’s power-sharing agreement). Such a meeting, if successful, could have paved the way for a consensus Presidential candidate and, just maybe, the beginning of a wider resolution of the Lebanese crisis that has deepened since Israel’s bloody invasion of Lebanon last summer.

This week’s car bomb, then, must be read against this context. While we will never know who actually masterminded this murder-such cases stretching back many years have never been solved by Lebanese investigators, usually for political reasons-it did not take long for accusations to be bandied about.

Live on TV, several MPs and officials from March 14 stated clearly that “everyone” knows who is behind not only this heinous murder, but all the others of the past two and a half years: Syria. Saad Hariri even, bizarrely, accused Syria of assassinating Ghanim in retaliation for Israel’s recent aerial strike in Syrian territory. Some March 14 politicians also seized the opportunity to openly accuse any opposition MP who does not attend the 25 September parliamentary session of treason, and thus indirectly of being complicit with Ghanim’s assassination.

Lebanese opposition figures and Syrian spokesmen, who had all unequivocally condemned yesterday’s terrorist act, angrily rejected such logic and accused anyone who took advantage of this tragedy for political gains of fomenting discord and serving “foreign” interests. For them, these attacks on March 14 MPs always come conveniently whenever the momentum seems to be swinging away from US and Israeli interests and towards internal consensus.

It is too early to tell what the precise fall out from this latest murder will be. Alas, genuine statesmen capable of rising above petty interests are in short supply here, and Lebanese will now expect more assassinations as Lebanon head towards a worst case scenario, namely the formation of two governments (in case no consensus is reached before the current President’s term expires on 24 November) and the effective partition of the country, not to mention state institutions. If this is allowed to happen, the future could be grim indeed.

Yesterday’s events cannot be taken out of the larger regional context. Just as prospects for Lebanon’s unity was taking a beating-and Iraq continues its violent spiral towards partition-Palestine was being further divided with Israel officially declaring Gaza, now a huge prison with 1.5 million people living in atrocious conditions, a “hostile territory” (with American blessing). Leaving aside the obvious legal and humanitarian considerations of such a provocative move by Israel, as noted by the UN Secretary General, it is clear that the Arab region is undergoing yet another round of internationally-sponsored violence and perhaps even partition, redrawing the regional map along the line fantasized by some neocons. The objective of such policy is to establish a string of “pro-US” (and neoliberal) regimes across the region and punish the “bad guys,” those state (e.g., Iran, Syria) or non-state (e.g., Hizbullah, Hamas) actors who reject Pax Americana and Israeli regional hegemony.

It is customary to end such an article with a plea to sane people everywhere to ensure that just settlements are reached in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. However, my feeling today is that we have only just begun a particularly violent stage of our history here, and lasting settlements–let alone justice–seems very far away indeed.

Karim Makdisi is an Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Dept. of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut. He can be reached at: makdisi007@yahoo.com