BEIRUT (AFP) – Lebanon is on a knife-edge amid mounting tension over a UN probe into the murder of the country’s ex-premier and efforts by regional leaders to try to contain a potentially explosive situation.
“Everyone feels the danger and it’s like a police thriller filled with suspense and where everyone is waiting to see who the murderer is,” said Ghassan al-Azzi, political science professor at Lebanese University.
“The nerves of the Lebanese are frayed.”
Lebanon has been holding its breath since July when the secretary general of the militant group Hezbollah announced that he believed members of his party would be indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) for the 2005 murder of ex-premier Rafik Hariri.
The powerful Shiite party has said it would not accept such an outcome, prompting fears of civil strife between supporters of current Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri — son of the slain ex-premier — and Hezbollah.
Rafik Hariri was assassinated on February 14, 2005 in a Beirut bombing that also killed another 22 people.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a documentary Monday similar to previous media reports, citing unidentified sources saying UN investigators had evidence that “points overwhelmingly” to the involvement of members of the Shiite militant group.
The prosecutor of the STL, Daniel Bellemare, criticised the CBC report and warned it could endanger lives.
“The most serious impact of the CBC reports is that their broadcast may put people’s lives in jeopardy,” Bellemare said in a statement.
He was “extremely disappointed” by the broadcast, he said.
No date has been set for the international tribunal to issue any indictments but it is widely believed in Lebanon’s political circles that the court will issue its findings by the end of the year.
In the meantime, regional leaders have been trying to mediate between the rival parties in Lebanon to avoid a full-blown crisis.
Saudi Arabia’s monarch, who supports the Hariri camp, as well as the Syrian and Iranian leaders, who back Hezbollah, have all travelled to Lebanon in recent months in a bid to quell the tension.
But the mediation efforts have so far failed with both camps refusing to budge.
Influential Druze leader Walid Jumblatt told AFP on Wednesday that he believed the UN tribunal was politically motivated and that the Lebanese government should unanimously reject it.
“This tribunal is aimed at destabilising Lebanon rather than rendering justice,” Jumblatt told AFP.
“It would be appropriate at this time for the cabinet to meet and unanimously denounce the tribunal and its (upcoming) verdict).”
The hereditary chief of Lebanon’s Druze minority pulled a political about-face in August 2009 from the Hariri-led coalition he helped create in order to move closer to the Hezbollah-led opposition supported by Syria and Iran.
He defended his move as necessary to preserve peace and avoid sectarian bloodshed.
Analysts say that even if the tribunal does indict high-ranking Hezbollah members, Lebanon is unlikely to see a repeat of the kind of sectarian violence that brought the country close to civil war in May 2008.
“I think it is unlikely that Hezbollah will do anything that threatens the country’s security,” said Paul Salem, head of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.
Experts and diplomats believe that the most likely outcome in the event Hezbollah members are indicted is that the court’s decision will be ignored by the party and its members will not be handed over.
“I don’t think the government will arrest anyone,” Salem said. “Hezbollah now are thinking that they might survive the tribunal.”
Christian leader Samir Geagea, who is allied with Hariri, echoed the belief of many on Wednesday in saying the country was doubtless headed toward a lengthy political stalemate.
“My feeling is that the government will continue to be paralysed,” he told AFP. “But I don’t think anything will happen beyond that as it does not serve the interest of Hezbollah.”