Robert Fisk: Lebanon in limbo: a nation haunted by the murder of Rafiq Hariri

Targeting Hezbollah could create a new crisis

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Soldiers, soldiers everywhere. In the valleys, on the mountains, in the streets of Beirut. I have never seen so many soldiers. Are they going to "liberate" Jerusalem? Or are they going to destroy all the Arab dictatorships?

They are supposed to stop the country of Lebanon from sliding into a civil war, I suppose. Hezbollah, we are told, has destroyed the government – which is true up to a point. For on Monday, so we are told, the Hague tribunal of the United Nations will tell us that members of Hezbollah killed the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.

America demands that the tribunal name the guilty men. So does France. And so, of course, does Britain. Which is strange, because in 2005, when Mr Hariri was killed 366 metres from me on the Beirut Corniche, we all believed that the Syrians had killed him. Not the President, mind you. Not Bashar Assad, but the security services of the Syrian Baath party. That's what I believed then. That's what I still believe. But we are told now that it will be Hezbollah, Syria's friend and Iran's militia (albeit Lebanese) in Lebanon. And now America and Britain are beating the drum of litigation.

Hezbollah must be blamed and of course, the Prime Minister – or, to be correct, the former prime minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq – has just lost his job.

There are many who believe that Lebanon will now descend into a civil war, similar to the fratricidal conflict which it endured from 1976 to 1980. I doubt it. A new generation of Lebanese, educated abroad – in Paris, in London, in America – have returned to their country and, I suspect, will not tolerate the bloodshed of their fathers and grandfathers.

In theory, Lebanon no longer has a government, and the elections which were fairly held and which gave Saad Hariri his cabinet are no more. President Michel Suleiman will begin formal talks on Monday to try to create a new government.

But what does Hezbollah want? Is it so fearful of the Hague tribunal that it needs to destroy this country? The problem with Lebanon is perfectly simple, even if the Western powers prefer to ignore it. It is a confessional state. It was created by the French, the French mandate after the First World War. The problem is that to become a modern state it must de-confessionalise. But Lebanon cannot do so. Its identity is sectarianism and that is its tragedy. And it has, President Sarkozy please note, a French beginning point.

The Shias of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is the leading party, are perhaps 40 per cent of the population. The Christians are a minority. If Lebanon has a future, it will be in due course be a Shia Muslim country. We may not like this; the West may not like this. But that is the truth. Yet Hezbollah does not want to run Lebanon. Over and over again, it has said it does not want an Islamic republic. And most Lebanese accept this.

But Hezbollah has made many mistakes. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, talks on television as if he is the President. He would like another war with Israel, ending in the "divine victory" which he claims his last war, in 2006, ended in. I fear the Israelis would like another war too. The Lebanese would prefer not to have one. But they are being pushed further and further into another war which Lebanon's supposed Western friends seem to want. The Americans and the British would like to hurt Iran. And that is why they would like Hezbollah to be blamed for Mr Hariri's murder – and for the downfall of the Lebanese government.

And it is perfectly true that Hezbollah does want this government to fall. By getting rid of this government, getting rid of this cabinet, it has broken the rules of the Doha agreement, which stated that the government and security services of Lebanon should not be harmed.

It is effectively wiping out the Arab "solution" to the Lebanese sectarian conundrum, and what – with the help of its Christian allies – is turning Lebanon into a frightened state. No wonder there were no drivers on the roads yesterday. No wonder the Lebanese were so frightened to go out and enjoy the Mediterranean sun. We are all frightened.

But I think the Lebanese state has grown up. I noticed, yesterday, that the Christian leader of the Lebanese Forces, one of the Christian militias, Samir Geagea, had a new photograph on the front of his party offices in a mountain town. But he was wearing civilian clothes. He was wearing a suit and tie. Not the militia costume he use to wear. That was a good sign.

No civil war in Lebanon.

A family affair: Saad Hariri

In a breezy questionnaire on his website, Saad Hariri says that he considers "flexibility" the most over-rated virtue. In the complicated confines of Lebanese politics it is a commonly-used one – and necessary for survival.

Mr Hariri became Prime Minister on 11 November 2009 after two successful election campaigns and four years after the death of his father – an event which has defined his leadership and the country's politics.

While campaigning for elections that his Future bloc won in 2005, he admitted: "I can't even believe this is happening; I'm still in disbelief that my father is not here. I don't lie to myself. Everyone is going to vote for my father today."

Mr Hariri, 40, married with three children, has a background in business. He graduated with a degree in international business at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 1992 and, for seven years until the death of his father, he was general manager of a construction company with 35,000 employees.

After his father died, he accused Syria of his murder – a view shared by many Lebanese who joined huge anti-Syrian protests which ended decades of Syrian domination over the nation. Displaying the flexibility that he has decried, Mr Hariri, as the head of the Sunni bloc in a divided Lebanon, later said he had acted wrongly to accuse Syria, and made his peace with that country's President.





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