BEIRUT (AFP) – The killing of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri one year ago transformed Lebanon’s politics and led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops, but long-desired stability and unity in the country is still a distant mirage.
Briefly united in grief and anger over the February 14 murder, Muslim, Druze and Christian Lebanese who had fought each other in a 15-year civil war joined forces to break Syria’s iron grip that had ruled them for nearly three decades.
But despite international support, particularly from the United States and France, the fragile unity has not lasted and the country has been scarred by a string of political assassinations.
“Lebanon is going through a period of considerable tension… The country is prey to sectarian conflicts that are unprecedented since the civil war,” said Hussein Agha, a political scientist and associate professor at St Antony’s college in Oxford.
Damascus may have been pushed onto the back foot with Lebanon’s anti-Syrian opposition now holding parliamentary power, but pessimism has again taken hold among many Lebanese.
“The year that has just gone has been peppered with disappointments, with continued attacks and political conflicts, even among those of the same camp,” said Lynn Zovighian, a 19-year-old political science student at the American University of Beirut.
She cited as one example the disputes between the patriotic current of Michel Aoun — a vehemently anti-Syrian former general — and the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority.
Opposition charges that Syria was behind Hariri’s murder — which still remains unsolved despite a UN investigation into the crime — have done nothing to reassure anti-Syrian Lebanese of their own safety.
United Nations pressure was building on Syria six months before a massive bomb blast on the Beirut seafront killed Hariri and 20 others and intensified when the probe implicated Syrian security officials.
Hariri, the architect of the Taif accord which ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, had refused to accept a constitutional amendment extending the mandate of Syrian ally President Emile Lahoud.
A virulent campaign against the five-times premier was mounted by Syria’s allies. But Hariri, who had the backing of a handful of MPs, was preparing to take the head of the anti-Syrian opposition when he was killed.
There has been no let-up in attacks since the assassination, including the murder of anti-Syrian media magnate and MP Gibran Tueni, with the finger again pointed at Damascus.
“In spite of everything, the determination of a powerful national unity is still living in the heart of the people,” said Zovighian, who accused Damascus of trying to show that Beirut could not rule itself.
Her belief in a plot against her country is shared by others.
“Those who killed Rafiq Hariri were seeking to assassinate Lebanon. We must not let this happen, but respond by unity,” said Samir Frangie, a new anti-Syrian MP.
Optimists point to the fact that Lebanon succeeded in holding its first parliamentary elections free of a Syrian presence last May and June.
Lebanon is now governed by a cabinet headed by Hariri’s former right hand man Fuad Siniora with representatives from across Lebanon’s religious groups. But the diversity can sometimes be a bar to decision making.
Pro-Syrian Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which forced an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000, has entered government for the first time.
It intends to use its political position to put off the question of disarming its militia.
Outside the political arena, Eliane Fatta, a 42-year-old mother, does little to hide her despair. “We lived as a dream on March 14,” she said, referring to the date of the huge, united protest that accelerated the Syrian pullout.
“But the continued killings and political conflicts have simply made the awaking more brutal.
“It is a country without hope. My only dream is that my children can emigrate to find a better future overseas,” she said.