x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Hariri trial will remain a test for Lebanese unity

Hizbollah's efforts to stall and disrupt the trials in the killing of Rafiq Hariri are a power struggle for the future of Lebanon.

Somebody certainly assassinated Rafiq Hariri; the 1,000-kilogram bomb that killed the Lebanese tycoon and former prime minister, along with 22 others, was no accident. And yet eight years to the day since the so-called Cedar Revolution called on Lebanon's leaders to bring those responsible to account, the special tribunal set up to identify and try the killers has accomplished at most half of its task.

Lebanon's 4.3 million people, so divided along so many fault lines, almost all accept that Hizbollah, serving the interests of Syria, was behind the murder. And yet the four suspects the tribunal has charged are still at large, and the planned trial in their absence has still not started. Such is the influence that Hizbollah, with its private army and foreign patrons, still holds over Lebanon's head.

The latest setback to the cause of justice in the case is the publication, in the Hizbollah-linked newspaper Al Akhbar, of the names, photos and addresses of 32 people expected to be witnesses at the trial. The chilling effect of this can be understood: all 32, and their families, friends and neighbours, will now be in fear of a bomb of their own, or some other method of silencing them and sabotaging the trial.

The whole tribunal process has always been unwelcome to many people in Lebanon, regardless of ethnic, religious or political affiliation. Many believe that Hizbollah, with its social-welfare programmes, its media empire, its strong support among the Shia, its anti-Israel stance, its Iranian backers and its potent military wing, is simply too big to be challenged. Hizbollah has the power to trigger major violence in Lebanon, on its own or by provoking Israel.

Yet Hizbollah, too, has its problems. Its sponsors, Syria and Iran, are under pressure, and it has been implicated in terror-related activity in Bulgaria and Cyprus.

Ultimately, the Hariri tribunal can be seen as an existential question for Lebanon. Exposure of potential witnesses was a plain signal that Hizbollah's foes are not safe. If the party can prevent or distort the trial in a political crime of this magnitude, what hope is there for politics and the rule of law in Lebanon?

As Michael Young argues on the facing page, Lebanon is a rare regional model of inclusive politics, in theory though not necessarily in practice. Rule by car bomb is not an alluring governance model. Every bit as much as the four absent suspects, Lebanon's future is on trial in this case.