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Rafik Hariri: In Lebanon, assassination reverberates 10 years later

Since the truck-bomb assassination of the former prime minister, which led to an unprecedented popular uprising, Lebanon has navigated a perilous path of violence and political turmoil.

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    Workers set a giant poster of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in preparation to mark the 10th anniversary of his assassination, at his grave in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. An explosion that killed Hariri 10 years ago sent a tremor across the region and unleashed an uprising that briefly united the Lebanese and ejected Syrian troops from the country. But a decade later, and despite millions of dollars spent, justice remains elusive in a case that has been overshadowed by the current turmoil.
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Rafik Hariri, the billionaire former Lebanese prime minister, was killed 10 years ago Saturday in a massive truck bomb assassination. But the legacy of that pivotal event, which sent Lebanon on a perilous path of violence and political turmoil, continues to resonate today.

The assassination led to an unprecedented popular uprising, an end to 29 years of domination by neighboring Syria, and the emergence of bitter political and sectarian divisions.

While Lebanon has yet to fully heal from that trauma, some look around the war-ravaged Middle East and are thankful Lebanon has not been completely engulfed. Others, however, are concerned that the assassination contributed to Lebanon being one of several arenas today in which the region’s rival powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, wage a proxy battle.

“Before [2011], Lebanon was the scene of tension between these two regional actors,” says Alain Aoun, a lawmaker with the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party politically allied with the militant Shiite Hezbollah organization and led by his uncle, Michel Aoun. “Today, they have lots of scenes. They have Iraq, they have Yemen, they have Bahrain and they mainly have Syria, which is the most important scene of instability and war between the two axes. Therefore, now, it is more difficult for these powers to reach agreement [on Lebanon] because everything is connected.”

The assassination of Mr. Hariri also led to the creation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is tasked with uncovering, arresting, and prosecuting the former premier’s killers. The UN-linked tribunal, based in The Netherlands, is currently trying five members of Hezbollah in absentia for their alleged roles in the truck bomb assassination, which also killed another 22 people.

But a decade later, the tribunal has failed to unmask those who gave the order for an assassination that changed Lebanon’s political landscape.

“The international tribunal was formed to say that the assassination of Rafik Hariri was not just another assassination … but to send a message that enough is enough and that Lebanon could not really tolerate any more being a satellite state to Syria or any other country,” says Fuad Siniora, a former Lebanese prime minister and childhood friend of Hariri, both of whom are Sunni Muslims.

Syria is pushed out

Syria was widely blamed for Hariri’s murder. In the months leading to the assassination, relations between Hariri and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad plummeted amid an atmosphere of threats and intimidation. Hariri and his allies in Lebanon were working toward reversing the pro-Syrian majority in the Lebanese parliament in elections scheduled for mid-2005, an outcome that would have undermined Damascus’s grip on its neighbor.

But it was Hariri’s murder that ultimately led to Syria’s disengagement from Lebanon. In the weeks after the bombing, a series of popular anti-Syrian protests were held in central Beirut. The United States and France, both then at odds with Mr. Assad’s regime, backed the protests and helped establish the United Nations investigation into Hariri’s murder. Under mounting pressure, Damascus pulled its troops from Lebanon at the end of April, two months after Hariri’s death.

“It was such a huge crime, and it was thanks to the popular upheaval that the Syrian regime, in one of its rare moments, felt afraid and hesitant, and it got out of Lebanon,” says Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community and an outspoken critic of the Assad regime.

In the summer of 2006, Iran- and Syria-allied Hezbollah fought a bloody month-long war with Israel in southern Lebanon and along the Israel-Lebanon border. Hezbollah’s political opponents in the Western- and Saudi-backed “March 14” parliamentary bloc bit their lips during the Israeli onslaught, but political tensions escalated rapidly once the conflict was over.

Disputes over the composition of the government led to a Shiite cabinet walkout in November 2006 followed by a mass sit-in in downtown Beirut the following month, paralyzing the city center. The March 14 bloc accused its rivals in the Iran- and Syria-supported “March 8” parliamentary bloc (the blocs were named after the dates of rival demonstrations) of attempting to thwart the establishment of the Hariri tribunal.

The sit-in dragged on for 16 months. The climax came in May 2008, when the Siniora government declared Hezbollah’s private communications network “illegal and illegitimate” and ordered the dismissal of a Hezbollah-linked security chief at Beirut airport.

On brink of new civil war

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, called that “tantamount to a declaration of war.” For a few days Lebanon teetered on the brink of a new civil war. Seven years on, Mr. Jumblatt, chief backer of the anti-Hezbollah ruling, admits it was a “big mistake,” that he “did not listen” to warnings, and that he crossed a “red line.”

Qatar stepped in to help mediate a solution that led to the government reversing its decree on Hezbollah’s network and the end of the sit-in.

But the assassinations, which had begun with Hariri, continued. The victims included five March 14 politicians, one March 8 politician, two anti-Syrian journalists, and three security officers.

Then in 2009, in a new twist to the UN’s Hariri probe, it emerged that investigators had unearthed evidence implicating Hezbollah, a revelation that shocked Lebanon. Sheikh Nasrallah denied his party was involved and accused Israel of murdering Hariri.

When in early January 2011 then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, rejected a Hezbollah demand to cease all cooperation with the international tribunal, the March 8 ministers in his cabinet resigned, toppling the government.

Six months later, the tribunal issued indictments against the first four Hezbollah men. Nasrallah dubbed the tribunal an “American-Israeli court” and vowed that the accused would not be arrested “in 30 days or even in 300 years.” The Lebanese government has told the tribunal it is unaware of their whereabouts.

Yet, even the political turmoil caused by the Hariri assassination was soon overshadowed by the civil war that continues to destroy Syria.

'Safeguard what is left'

Lebanon has been battered by spillover from the war, including a wave of suicide bombings in Shiite areas, a low-scale insurgency between extremist groups and the Army along Lebanon’s eastern border, and the influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Parliament has twice postponed elections, usually held every four years, citing the security situation. And the country has been without a head of state since last May amid continued bickering between rival candidates.

“The 10th annual commemoration of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri comes at a gloomy time for Lebanon as parliament’s mandate has been extended twice, the presidential election has failed so far, the institutions are rusting, and security is volatile due to wars next door,” lamented Sheikh Abdel-Latif Deryan, the Sunni Grand Mufti of Lebanon, following a visit to Hariri’s tomb in downtown Beirut.

Lebanese politicians and analysts say the country has little choice but to try and ride out the storm of Middle East conflict in the hope of a future settlement.

“It’s up to us Lebanese, taking into account the deep divisions among the political factions, to safeguard what is left of this model of coexistence and diversity,” says Jumblatt. “If we are fool enough not to learn the lessons of history, it would be madness.… In Lebanon, we can say we have been lucky so far. Let’s try to preserve it.”

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