Murder hunt threatens chaos in Lebanon
As UN investigators prepare their verdict on the killing of a Lebanese politician some now ask: is the promise of justice worth the threat of chaos?
The plotters timed their move perfectly. The Lebanese Prime Minister was in Washington meeting the US President when 11 politicians, allied with the opposition group Hezbollah, toppled his government by resigning en masse.
Lebanon, a tiny country on the Mediterranean, is home to a hugely diverse population. From 1975 to 1990 a ferocious civil war set its many religious and ethnic factions against each other, drawing in forces from Syria and Israel, the country’s powerful neighbours.
The war ended when the Syrian army occupied the country. Since then Lebanon has existed in a state of fragile peace, torn by outbreaks of violence and unable to free itself of foreign control.
But in 2005, an anti-Syrian politician called Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a bomb attack and Syria was widely held to blame.
Shocked by the outpouring of popular fury, Syria finally withdrew. Pro-western politicians were strengthened. The USA and its allies hoped for a new era of peaceful Lebanese democracy.
But in spite of the retreat, the former occupiers remain powerful in Lebanon. The Hezbollah militia, which supports Syria, is the country’s most effective fighting force, stronger than the official Lebanese army.
Until this week, Hezbollah and their opponents, the pro-American March 14th Coalition, have coexisted in an uneasy ‘unity’ government.
Now that unity has collapsed.
Why? A special UN tribunal is about to deliver its verdict on the 2005 assassination. It is likely to report that Hezbollah were responsible for Hariri’s murder.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, have been implausibly accusing the US and Israel of killing Hariri, and has been putting pressure on the Lebanese government to reject the tribunal’s findings.
But the leader of the Lebanese government is the murdered man’s son. Supported by the US, he and his allies have stubbornly persisted in giving the tribunal full backing.
The UN tribunal is probably the best chance Lebanon will have to uncover the truth about the murder. ‘We are open to dialogue,’ said a Lebanese minister, but ‘not at the expense of justice.’
But there are those who think that by supporting the tribunal, the government and its US backers have wrecked the political truce between the factions, perhaps even renewing the threat of civil war. One Lebanese leader asked ‘what's the use of tribunal justice is if it leads to slaughter? It’s better to drop justice for stability.’
- Is justice more important than political stability?
- Why do you think so many foreign powers are so interested in a tiny country like Lebanon?
- Imagine you were a young Lebanese student, watching your country struggle to build a lasting peace. Write a song or poem about how the government collapse might make you feel.
- Do some research into some of Lebanon's different factions, then create a poster with a short introduction to each one.
Some People Say...
“Morality has no place in international politics.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What exactly is Hezbollah again?
- Hezbollah is an armed group, which has huge power in parts of Lebanon. It is well armed, supported by Syria and Iran, and is extremely hostile to Israel. It is widely regarded as a terrorist organisation.
- And how did they topple the government?
- Hezbollah was part of a ‘unity’ government, with representatives of various different factions. On Wednesday, Hezbollah ministers and their allies withdrew from the government, and Lebanese political rules mean that when a government loses more than a third of its ministers, it must be disbanded.
- So what’s likely to happen now?
- No one really knows. The Prime Minister will continue to keep things running until a new government can be formed, but most Lebanese expect a long period of economic and political stagnation, if not worse.