Hariri’s House of Cards

“Have a little mercy on the Lebanese. People were considerate with you at first because your father is a martyr, but today they have become bored with you. You are playing with the country, not with PlayStation.”

– Lebanese Unification (Tawhid) Movement leader Wiam Wahhab, in comments directed to Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, 27 September 2010

A war of words has erupted between Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s ruling March 14 Coalition, posing the greatest challenge to Hariri’s leadership yet and threatening the viability of his “national unity” government.

As indictments loom following the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) investigation into the February 2005 assassination of the late premier Rafiq al-Hariri, his now-prime minister son finds himself trapped between diametrically opposed forces. Those in his parliamentary bloc and own Future Movement back the STL—and importantly, its funding—while the March 8 opposition has called for it to either seriously consider claims of alleged Israeli involvement in Hariri’s killing or be shut down.

The STL is still expected to implicate Hezbollah elements in the murder even after Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah presented intercepted video footage obtained from Israeli reconnaissance drones revealing the path of Hariri’s motorcade and exact location of the attack. He also said Ghassan al-Jedd, a known Israeli spy, was present at the crime scene that day (Jedd later fled to Israel).

Nasrallah’s disclosures came against the backdrop of an extensive crackdown on Israeli espionage rings operating in Lebanon’s security and telecommunications sectors, including the state-owned mobile service provider, Alfa. Having worked for the Mossad for more than a decade, one agent confessed to installing computer programs and planting chips in Alfa transmitters to be used by Israeli intelligence to monitor communications, and locate and target individuals for assassination.

This is significant since the STL is expected to rely heavily on phone records in drawing its conclusions: “A preliminary report by the U.N. investigating team said it had collected data from mobile phone calls made the day of Hariri’s murder as evidence,” AFP reported.

The fallout from Rafiq al-Hariri’s killing dramatically reshaped Lebanon’s relationship with Syria. Both the slain leader’s allies and son quickly pointed an accusatory finger at Damascus. Events that subsequently transpired became known as the “Cedar Revolution” and ultimately led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence in March-April 2005.

This made Saad al-Hariri’s recent about-face all the more stunning.

In an early September interview with the Saudi-owned newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, Hariri said he had mistakenly blamed Syria for his father’s assassination. He withdrew what he called a “political” accusation and apologized.

But some would not let Hariri off the hook so easily.

Brigadier General Jamil al-Sayyed was Lebanon’s former head of general security at the time the massive bomb detonated under Hariri’s motorcade. He along with three other pro-Syrian generals were arrested in August 2005 and jailed for nearly four years—without charge—on suspicion of involvement in the crime. They were ordered released by the Tribunal in 2009 due to fabricated, recanted witness testimony and lack of evidence.

Al-Sayyed said Saad al-Hariri had “sold his father’s blood” by way of false witnesses so he could frame Syria for the murder:

“You [Saad al-Hariri], those who are with you and [former Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora know that you have been exercising falsification since the beginning … Had the false witnesses managed to cheat the court and had you accepted that, would you be apologizing today or would you be dancing in Damascus with the new leader you installed?

“But one day, I will take what is rightfully mine with my own hands if you do not give it to me …”

State prosecutor Said Mirza summoned al-Sayyed from France for the implied threat to Hariri and his call for the Lebanese people to revolt against the government. When he arrived at Beirut’s international airport, Hezbollah representatives met him in force and escorted him home. March 14 supporters said that the action amounted to an airport takeover meant to protect al-Sayyed from arrest.

The fact that fabricated witness testimony once used to incriminate Syria may now be directed Hezbollah’s way is obviously not lost on the March 8 Coalition.

Hezbollah M.P. Hasan Fadlallah said, “When we talk about this issue, we don’t only refer to four or five people who gave false testimonies during the investigations in the murder of (former) premier (Rafiq) Hariri. These are only one ring of the rings of false witnesses, and maybe the weakest and smallest ring in this dossier. We want this group dismantled, the heads of this group unveiled and the case followed up at the judicial, legal and political levels in Lebanon, so that it faces trial and accountability.”

Hariri has a number of fateful decisions on his hands: to proceed with or table the STL finance bill (Lebanon pays 49 percent of the Court’s cost and Hezbollah has already vowed to block it); to enforce the summons against Gen. al-Sayyed or prosecute the false witnesses; and most significantly, to decide whether to back the STL verdict likely blaming Hezbollah despite evidence of Israeli complicity. If so, March 8 ministers (holding one-third of cabinet seats) could pull out of his administration, plunging the country into an even deeper political crisis.

Hariri’s government is now more fragile than ever; a proverbial house of cards erected on fabricated witness testimonies and one likely to be brought down by the upcoming indictments of a discredited tribunal.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.