Beirut grinds to a standstill in honour of Hariri's memory

Hundreds of thousands protest on fifth anniversary of prime minister's murder

As one Lebanese journalist put it, they had "water in their mouths". Oh yes they did. Much water. Former prime minister Fouad Siniora spoke of the need for good relations with Syria. Saad Hariri, Lebanon's Prime Minister, who in December made his own grim pilgrimage to Damascus to shake the hand of the President whose country he believes (or believed) killed his father, talked about Arab reconciliation. Statesmanship overwhelmed judicial guilt. National unity came first. Five years after Rafiq Hariri, Saad's father, was butchered in Beirut, the people of Lebanon were asked to be responsible (politically, not culpable, mark you). No violence, please. No accusations against Syria. The gathering in central Beirut – perhaps 100,000 – was obedient, submissive and law-abiding.

Some of the crowd chanted "haqiqa" – the truth – but few believe they will ever hear it. A vast UN tribunal costing millions of pounds and loaded with judges and lawyers and policemen has failed to charge a single person. Set up in the former headquarters of the Dutch secret police, its only achievement is to have named some Syrian officials, then censored their names and then withdrawn charges against a witness who turned out to be a fraud. And four top security men have been released after years in jail without trial. "Haqiqa" indeed.

With unconscious irony, Beirut's soldiers roped off a large network of roads with yellow tape marked "crime scene". And that is what, in effect, Beirut has become; a vast crime scene, a place of statues and pictures of political and journalistic martyrs whose deaths and murders have never – not one of them – ever been solved. Yet today, Sister Syria – once so reviled as the principle suspect in Hariri's murder (and hosts of others) – is smiling again, back on Washington's happy list – a new American ambassador is about to be appointed to Damascus – because the US needs President Bashar Assad's help to disentangle it from the mess in Iraq. President Barack Obama telephoned Rafiq Hariri's son last week to assure him that he wanted the UN tribunal to succeed. Some hope.

Hizbollah, armed by Iran, friend of Syria, represented in the Lebanese cabinet, holding a veto over all government decisions, was not present. Hence the absence of the Shias, Lebanon's largest minority. Hence the failure of the body politic of Lebanon. Sister Syria still controls this little country. Even the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, daily waiting for a call from Damascus to redeem himself, would only appear as a private mourner at the white-lilied grave of Rafiq, clasping his hands beside Saad Hariri. Only five years ago, he was talking about "the terrorist tyrant Basil Assad", but that was then. Lebanon is as forgiving as it is unforgiving. Amin Gemayel (father of Pierre, done to death by a hand unknown in 2006) spoke and so did Samir Geagea, who has blood on his hands.

"You crazy guys from Bcharre and the cedars, welcome!" shouted the cheerful master of ceremonies. "You crazy guys from Tripoli, from Metn, from Kesrwan, from Beirut. " But he did not mention the Shia towns and cities. Because they were not there.

And as Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister, blew kisses to us, a loudspeaker suddenly broadcast his dead father's voice, speaking – in English – of his pride in the UN, the very institution that has so miserably failed to find his murderers.

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