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Memory of Hariri fades as Lebanon faces new dangers

Rafiq Hariri's memory is shrinking from Lebanon's national consciousness, under the pressures of today's divisions in society.

On February 14, many Lebanese marked eight years since Rafiq Hariri's assassination. However, the mood in recent years has been more subdued than in the ones immediately after the crime, when Hariri's partisans gathered in Martyrs Square in the tens of thousands to hear rousing political speeches.

This tells us much about what has happened to the memory of Hariri. Of course, no one, not even in death, can be celebrated forever. Lebanon has moved on. Moreover, the former prime minister's son and political heir, Saad Hariri, has been out of Lebanon for almost two years, to the dismay of his followers. He says that he is under threat, and may have been advised to stay away.

Three things have combined to prevent the emergence of a consensus over Hariri's legacy: political discord within Lebanese society, the troubled establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and the inability in recent years of Saad Hariri's Future Movement to keep Rafiq Hariri's achievements alive.

The senior Hariri's memory has been undone by political infighting in Lebanon since 2005. Today, the way people remember the former prime minister is a function of where they stand politically. Hariri, who always presented himself as an embodiment of a united Lebanon after the destruction of the war years, has since his death become a tool in the struggle between Lebanon's Sunni and Shia communities.

This should not be surprising. When Hariri was killed, his co-religionists interpreted his elimination as an effort, by Syria's Alawite-dominated regime, to be rid of a threatening Sunni. This view was probably justified. Coupled with suspicion that Hizbollah had participated in the crime, and given the party's efforts to derail collaboration between the Lebanese state and the United Nations over an international investigation and trial, this stoked Sunni-Shia hostility.

This bad feeling has alarmed many Lebanese, and non-Lebanese, who fear that any elucidation of the crime may lead to sectarian conflict. In this tense context, it is more comprehensible that Hariri's past achievements, above all his post-war reconstruction plan, have received short shrift. And his policies were themselves frequently controversial, with some arguing that the sums of money involved only fed post-war corruption.

Sectarian conflict is also at the core of the second issue that has helped undermine Hariri's legacy, namely the creation of a special tribunal to try those suspected of the assassination. This was preceded by a UN-established investigation, which from the start split the Lebanese. The tribunal is scheduled to begin a trial this year, based on an indictment that accuses five Hizbollah members.

Many worry that Lebanon is ill-prepared to contain the sectarian repercussions of a trial, particularly when Sunnis and Shia already profoundly disagree over the Syrian conflict. But the investigation and trial must also be judged beyond their effect on stability: will the early promise that a trial would end impunity be honoured?

All the evidence says otherwise. It took six years to get an indictment. The last two investigators, the Belgian Serge Brammertz and the Canadian Daniel Bellemare, appear not to have pursued lines of investigation opened by the first investigator, the German Detlev Mehlis. And the indictment prepared by Mr Bellemare is remarkable in that it offers no actual motive for the killing, when this would seem to be the prerequisite of any strong legal case.

Hizbollah and its allies have their own interpretation. They have accused UN investigators of targeting the party, in an American and Israeli plot to neutralise resistance against Israel. Hizbollah accuses Israel of eliminating Hariri, a theory that has gained little traction since there is no evidence to support it.

A proper, thorough investigation, backed by solid evidence, would have done much to neutralise critics. Instead, the years of waiting demoralised backers of the investigation and made the pursuit of leads in Syria much more difficult.

Today opponents of the trial have muddied the waters, so there is no national accord over the benefits of identifying the guilty.

A third reason Rafiq Hariri's legacy has suffered is that his own movement has failed to live up to the high expectations of 2005. A politician is judged by how his political inheritors behave. At the time many people believed Lebanon was on the cusp of a new era, finally free of Syria and confident about its future. Hariri, who had turned against Syria in 2004, seemed to exemplify this ambition - and paid for doing so.

Yet Lebanon broke down quickly into factionalism, and the Future Movement suffered. Amid sectarian rifts it was never able to implement a convincing model of reform and normalisation when Saad Hariri became prime minister in 2009. After he was pushed out in 2011, and Najib Mikati was named to succeed him, Saad Hariri turned against Mr Mikati with a vengeance, and refused to enter his government. At a time of volatility, this backfired on Future, which came to be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

This fact, with Saad Hariri's extended absence from Lebanon, has not done any good for how Lebanese remember Rafiq Hariri. The Lebanese are passing through a difficult period, and even at the best of times their memory is selective and inconsistent. Though once admired, the former prime minister has become a victim of their variability.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter @BeirutCalling.

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