“You need a gun.”
It was February 14, 2005. Hours earlier, in a massive blast that shook Beirut to its core, assassins had taken the life of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri and dozens more. Between bouts of shock and rage, many Lebanese pointed the finger at Syria, but others focused their attention on Israel or – yes, even then – on Hizbullah. All were stunned by the brazen killing.
Somehow, though, my grandfather had other concerns. Beirut’s demons.
“Beirut can slide out of control quickly,” he said. “And then you’ll see the beasts underneath those pretty faces. Calmly walk to your car and drive away… Now.”
If I thought the old man was crazy then, the years have changed that. A string of assassinations, extended periods of political paralysis, and two noteworthy conflicts have pushed the Lebanese to the brink several times, revealing glimpses of a darkness lurking beneath Beirut’s Levantine cosmopolitanism.
Through it all, the controversial Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a source of conflict in itself, has gradually led aggrieved Lebanese to their neighbors’ doorsteps. Now unsealed, the STL indictment has named four men affiliated with Hizbullah as its suspects, thereby confirming some of the leaks, speculation, and half-truths that have surrounded the investigation since the beginning.
And so, the Tribunal will try four people affiliated with Hizbullah, a Shiite militia and political party, for the murder of Hariri, a Sunni political giant. The consequences of a public trial may be damning for the Party of God. Despite Hizbullah’s deep support among Lebanese Shiites, its future also depends on the perception of others.
In 2006, Hizbullah electrified the mostly Sunni Arab world by surviving – hence, “winning” – a war with Israel. Despite the ire of Sunni regimes, who blasted Hizbullah’s “adventurism” for their own reasons, Hizbullah was king for a moment.
That’s no longer true. The party has bled support for five years, has found itself mired in successive controversies, and now faces a few serious immediate challenges. Where regional popularity was once a source of strength for Hizbullah, emerging regional hostility may soon be a new weakness.
Faced with serious interrelated challenges, Hizbullah cannot be pleased with the indictment’s timing. First, due to worsening tensions with Israel, Hizbullah continues to prepare for another war, which analysts predict will involve large swathes of both Lebanon and Israel (as opposed to the usual border skirmishes and aerial campaigns).
Second, most Lebanese want to disarm Hizbullah sooner rather than later. Even members of the Free Patriotic Movement, Hizbullah’s most important ally, seek to integrate the party’s arsenal and cadres into legitimate state institutions at some point. There is no easy answer, but the Hizbullah question continues to dominate the Lebanese discourse.
Third, as local Sunnis seethe over past insults and injuries, prospects for renewed strife remain significant. Unresolved quarrels – the controversy surrounding the Hariri assassination; the May 2008 clashes; and the communal balance of power – have unraveled decades of painstaking work by Hizbullah to avoid ostracizing Lebanon’s Sunnis.
Fourth, unrest in Syria threatens the Asad regime, a pivotal regional patron and ally. Regime change or even prolonged instability could reduce Hizbullah’s strategic depth, eliminate many training centers, hinder supply routes, and neuter political cover from Damascus.
Against this backdrop, a public international trial can only taint Hizbullah’s image and further constrain its room for maneuver. In the past, as with the July War and the May 2008 clashes, Hizbullah has used force to create political space for itself. Faced with mounting pressure, Hizbullah or its Iranian patrons are that much more likely to use force – by design, or as a rash reaction.
The deeper problem, however, has little to do with the party’s behavior in the short term. Its mere presence as an armed militia, under the shadow of past transgressions, will invite domestic and external challenges that will strain the Lebanese system for years to come.
Hizbullah itself will suffer just as much, maybe more. In Lebanon – part libertarian paradise, part Hobbesian jungle – many overly ambitious projects have failed crushingly. From the Druze emirs of the Modern Period and Ottomans of the late 19th century, to the Lebanese militias, Israelis, and Syrians of more recent vintage, life has quickly turned nasty and brutish.
Without seriously reinventing itself, Hizbullah will be next. Or was my grandfather alone in cleaning out his gun?