Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri is in London for talks with British counterpart David Cameron on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, expected to indict Hezbollah members for the 2005 assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri by the end of the year.
The tribunal is a ticking bomb that Saad Hariri’s government has been juggling for five years. The crisis came to a head last week with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s call for a total boycott of the investigation.
Hezbollah's recent reception for Iranian President Ahmadinejad reminded the world that it has allies strong enough to stand up to America. Hariri's photo-shoot with British PM David Cameron on Monday represents the Lebanese leader picking up Hezbollah's gauntlet.
Since Nasrallah’s challenge, the cornered prime minister has been a blur of desperate action. His trip to London follows meetings with the Kuwaiti Emir and prime minister on Saturday. On the same day, US President Obama called the Saudi King to express his support for Hariri and the tribunal. Hariri’s next stop is expected to be Moscow.
The Lebanese National News Agency reports these trips vaguely as being "to discuss current affairs and bilateral relations". The precise content of Hariri’s talks with Western and pro-Western leaders will remain unclear, but we can assume he is doing all he can to shore up support abroad before the coming showdown with his domestic opposition.
Hariri cannot face off Hezbollah and its allies with military force, and possibly no longer with parliamentary weight. In time-honoured Lebanese tradition, Hariri's last resort is to internationalise the issue. On the domestic level he is weak, but if he can escalate it to the international arena, he may still come out on the winning side.
Certainly Obama and Cameron seem keen to champion the international tribunal in their struggle for “justice and democracy”. But it has not been the unswerving sword of independent justice they would have it seem.
Syria has brought charges of false testimony against tribunal collaborators. Perhaps more seriously, the investigators’ enquiries seem to have echoed US strategic priorities with eerie precision. In 2005, a time of UN sanctions against Syria as a “rogue state”, the evidence was hinted to lead to Syrian President Assad’s inner circle. The US and Israel’s more recent courting of Syria to isolate Iran was mirrored by reports that the tribunal would indict members of Hezbollah, Iran’s right hand in Lebanon.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has been a blessing and a curse for Saad Hariri: a political weapon that launched his political career but which he never quite controlled.
Saad Hariri has always lived in his father’s sizeable shadow. Rafiq was the very model of a self-made man, who turned “Hariri” into a household name. He moved to the Gulf to find his fortune in the mid-1960s, hit hard times, but came out on top in the late 1970s with several billion-dollar fortunes under his belt and friends in very high places.
Back in Lebanon, Rafiq distributed his wealth liberally through investment and philanthropic projects, winning – or buying, his critics would say – friends and voters in droves. Once the fifteen-year civil war was over – with a little help from Hariri Inc. – Rafiq emerged as a natural candidate for the premiership.
Saad Hariri was never a natural candidate for leadership, except by blood – and copious inheritance. When his father was murdered in a bomb attack on February 14, 2005, it was not clear whether the inexperienced son would step up. Such was the success of the March 14 “Cedar Revolution” against Syria, rousing the masses in the name of the martyred Rafiq Hariri, that Saad was swept into the new government.
The cause of the international tribunal was the government’s way of continually reminding the Lebanese of its achievements and moral high ground, even as it descended into rounds of political bickering. It also helped Saad Hariri to build on his father’s connections with Western leaders.
So dependent is Saad Hariri on his father’s legacy, however, that the tribunal has become a ball and chain that he drags with him to the negotiating table. He struggled with it during the long and difficult process of normalising relations with Syria, essential for political and economic stability in Lebanon. And it has caused him to stumble repeatedly in his dealings with Hezbollah, without whose support he can no longer govern.
The inevitable tick-tick of the tribunal’s final weeks has brought Saad Hariri’s premiership to crisis point amid fears of a renewed civil war with Hezbollah. Can he free himself from his commitment to justice for his father, or intimidate his opponents with shows of solidarity from Barack Obama and David Cameron? Or will the tribunal end Saad Hariri’s political career as it kick-started it five years ago?
Alexander D.M. Henley, PhD Candidate, University of Manchester