x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Hariri arrests are not high on Lebanese shopping list

While many said tensions were growing, few feared that the arrest warrants may lead to violence.

BEIRUT // For most people in Beirut, life continued as normal yesterday after arrest warrants were issued for four Lebanese men over the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.

Though the Hariri murder sparked a wave of massive protests in 2005, which drove Syrian troops from the country after a 29-year presence, residents said the trial no longer represents the justice they seek.

"There are names now, and that's important, whether they are arrested or not," said Mohammed Ali, a tradesman who lives in Salim Salam, an area in West Beirut where Sunni and Shiite populations are heavily mixed.

Yesterday, Marwan Charbel, Lebanon's interior minister confirmed to AFP that the tribunal issued arrest warrants for four men - two of whom are confirmed members of Hizbollah: Mustafa Badreddine, Salim Ayyash, Assad Sabra and Hussein Anaissi, and said efforts would begin to arrest them. But, in a country with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 outstanding warrants, few think the accused will ever stand trial.

A resident in Salim Salam, who did not want to be named, said the indictment is a message to foreign countries that their influence in Lebanese affairs will no longer go unchecked.

"If someone on the street is murdered, the culprit is caught within 24 hours, if it's a politician, they know who it is within six hours, but it will take years for them to do anything," said Foaud Fakhour, who has owned a toy store in Selim Salam for 25 years.

While many said tensions were growing, few feared that the arrest warrants may lead to violence. "Bottom line, nobody cares - we're sick and tired of war," said Dalia Diab, an intern at a pharmacy in the same neighbourhood.

"There's tension, yes, but if there was going to be violence, it would have happened last fall."

In November, international media reported that the tribunal was close to indicting Hizbollah members. At the time, some in Beirut feared that new fighting may break out.

Lebanon's security forces have kept a subdued presence throughout the capital, including the heavily patrolled downtown area. Since the announcement, volatile areas have remained calm.

Even in Heirat Hayek, a South Beirut suburb and Hizbollah stronghold, residents said the indictment is old news.

A resident who did not wish to be named said she did not believe the accused were guilty, and besides, "it just isn't important anymore".

Near parliament, shoppers strolled along reconstructed blocks of historic Ottoman-era buildings, window shopping the latest luxury brands - a typical Friday in the capital's downtown.

"Politicians are the only people who care about the politics here," said George Badel, 24, a barista at a downtown cafe.

Mr Badel felt the government's efforts would be better spent focusing on boosting the country's struggling tourism sector instead of hunting down the four accused of murdering Mr Hariri.

The indictments were likely to add to foreign tourists' fears about a country whose government has been in power less than three weeks.

Summer tourism has dropped considerably because of regional instability.

A recent Ernst & Young survey found hotel occupancy in Beirut had plummeted as much as 50 per cent in the first four months of this year.

Holding up a US$100 bill, Mr Badel said: "This. This is what matters right here."