As I waited in line for my zaatar man’oushe this morning, a passerby waved to Ali, the baker, and wished him a good morning.
“What’s so good about it?” Ali muttered back, staring down at his bucket of chopped tomatoes.
The supporters of March 14th are not loving life today, despite Saad al-Hariri’s efforts to spin the news of the four generals’ release as a confirmation of the tribunal’s transparency. The political talk shows last night were the scene of undisguised schadenfreude by opposition figures from Wi’am Wahhab to Michel Samaha to Sleiman Frangieh, who twisted the knife by feigning sympathy for the Hariri family, and vowing to continue the fight for “real” justice.
From interview to interview, channel to channel, the exquisite blend of platitudes and recriminations was too similar to be a deliberately orchestrated cross-coalition messaging strategy. It was simply pure instinct.
There are three prisms through which to read this development.
1. The fate of the Special Tribunal and the Hariri investigation
As The Daily Star‘s editorial notes today, “the decision to release the four does not represent the entire judicial process of the Special Tribunal; it’s not even the indictment. We do not and will not know anything about the truth, or lack thereof, of accusations made against any side before the indictments are issued, the final verdict is handed down, and the appeals process is concluded.”
While this may be true, it is looking increasingly unlikely that a finger will be pointed anywhere near the Syrian regime. Daniel Bellemare, whose deliberate manner and aversion to grandstanding endeared him to the opposition (even as it frustrated March 14th stalwarts), has apparently assembled a huge dossier of evidence on somebody or some group. There will be an answer at some point, but probably not the answer that March 14th is looking for.
Interestingly, under the unlikely circumstances that Bellemare does have evidence that ties the murder to Syria via some other channel (a plausible scenario, when you think about it, given that such a political crime would not have been contracted out to high-profile security chiefs who were themselves the subjects of surveillance by Western intelligence agencies), then the opposition will find itself in a bind, having already certified the tribunal as unpoliticized and transparent. However, this seems extremely unlikely.
2. The changing regional situation
Most M14ers are reading this development, like Robert Fisk, as the first true sign of a grand bargain between the United States and Syria, perhaps auguring the return of a Syrian-Saudi condominium in Lebanon. When confronted with this theory on Maggie Farah’s OTV show last night, Sleiman Frangieh replied (and I paraphrase): “When the regional situation was to their advantage, why didn’t they charge the generals with a crime? It’s not as though they were charged, and when the regional situation changed the charges were dropped. They were never charged, because there was never enough evidence.”
Frangieh doesn’t tell the whole story, but his point is relevant to a broader issue, namely March 14th’s mismanagement of its dominant position in Lebanese politics between 2005-08. With the entire world on its side, a majority in parliament, a fragmented opposition, and no checks on its power in cabinet, March 14th squandered its clout on a politics of revenge that outlasted its utility. As I wrote here three weeks ago, I seem to meet a lot of disgruntled M14ers these days, folks who feel that the movement lost its momentum a long time ago and that its leaders (to quote The West Wing’s Joey Lucas) are “like the French radical saying, ‘There go my people. I should find out where they’re going so I can lead them.’”
3. The upcoming elections
Will the generals’ release have any bearing on the elections? It depends on a few different factors. I don’t believe that too many people are going to change their vote. On the other hand, many more may be less inclined to vote at all, which is almost the same thing.
In order to get a sense for just how good the opposition feels right now, electorally speaking, think about how different the picture would look had Bellemare announced that there was strong evidence linking the four generals to the assassination, and that they were going to be transferred to The Hague where they would be charged with murder. March 14th’s prospects would have gone through the roof.
March 8th is capitalizing on this series of events by focusing their criticism less on Saad Hariri himself (who remains the grieving son) than on his conniving lieutenants: Marwan Hamade, Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea, etc. The point of this strategy is to help facilitate the transformation of March 14th — in the minds of its partisans — from a national movement into just another clannish affair.
By paying homage to Rafiq Hariri while disparaging those who sought to benefit from his assassination, the opposition is angling to turn his cause into yet another tribal grievance — like the murders of Kamal Jumblatt, Tony Frangieh, Rashid Karami, Bashir Gemayel, and many others — even as we speak. Kind of brilliant, when you think about it.
At the end of the day, there is something so fittingly Lebanese about the fact that the pronouncement of a foreign magistrate regarding the culpability of a foreign power should have a significant bearing on a local election. As a good friend would say in this situation: “You want it bad, you get it bad.”