Rafiq Hariri beams serenely from a large billboard in downtown Beirut. Next to his face, numbers count up, ticking one by one, recording the days since his death until the truth about his killers is revealed.
Sometime in the next week or two, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will offer its opinion: most likely that members of Hezbollah were responsible for the former Prime Minister’s spectacular death on a highway overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
It will be backed by evidence and painstaking investigation, but it will remain, in the Lebanese mind, just another opinion, vying for prominence alongside another inevitably popular view: that Israeli fighter jets targeted Hariri’s car using laser-guided bombs.
As it became increasingly likely that the finger of blame would point inside Lebanon and not out, Hezbollah relentlessly undermined the tribunal, declaring it a corrupt tool of American and Israeli interests and accusing it of trying to pry the militia from the Lebanese state.
Last Wednesday they dissolved the government, amid international outcry that they were aggravating the situation. Subtly, they may have been easing it: now Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain former PM, doesn’t have to dismiss Hezbollah from his government, and they don’t have to react by seizing West Beirut. And now all parties can wrangle over the Special Tribunal’s ruling on more familiar territory: behind closed doors. Truth and justice are nice ideas, but here, like everything else, they’re just political chips to be bargained with.
The media has scrambled to describe the depth of the crisis and hint at the dark times to come, but the Lebanese are largely unaffected. The designer stores and trendy bars of Ashrafieh are still full of women with impossibly straight noses and unlikely blonde hair. Armenians and Sri Lankans in leather jackets and ironic sweaters worn earnestly still mob the streets of the Dora. The streets are still jammed with cars sounding long, absurd drones from their horns. One friend told me that his wedding was scheduled for June, “unless there’s a war — then we might push it to October”.
The people are sick of war, and all parties are desperate to avoid it. Saad Hariri has already affirmed that “there is no alternative for us other than dialogue”. Regional leaders, grimly watching the events in Tunisia over the weekend, will do all they can to avert street fighting — the Turkish Prime Minister has already said he is “ready to contribute to a solution”.
Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Beirut looms over the city like an ancient fort. They look like the aggressor, but the militia has the biggest stake in stability. In 2006 they held Israel at bay for 30 days and united the country in admiration. Their view of the world does not leak out in grainy videos on YouTube — they have a dedicated TV station, complete with news and chat shows. Their delegates win student elections; they run museums and sell souvenirs and their army is better equipped than the state’s. On the road to legitimacy they have allied with influential Christian leader Michel Aoun and attracted scores of Christian members — even their harshest critics admit that without them the Israeli border is indefensible. As one opposition supporter conceded to me, “we don’t have the luxury of being against Hezbollah”.
Push too aggressively, turn their guns on Lebanese citizens, and they risk undoing these gains. The accused terrorist group has learnt to play politics: power built slowly, surely, maintaining popular support, will be lasting and more resistant to American, Israeli or Sunni intervention.
The negotiations to form a new government will be long and tortured, but this crisis is likely to be resolved in a presidential palace in Doha or Ankara, not under the bullet-ridden statues of Martyrs’ Square.
That Hariri billboard downtown is only a few hundred metres from Martyrs’ Square. It looks different these days; after the counter reached four digits, they took it down. Now you only see Hariri’s face next to empty, black space.
For a time there, that spring of 2005, it looked as though vague and wonderful ideas such as truth and law might really exist here. But not any more. Instead, again, the Lebanese will have to settle for stability.