The art of distraction

Lebanon looks at the STL through the wrong lens (Photo:AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID)

For several excruciating months the Lebanese press has been subjecting us all to a whirlwind of speculation over the prospect that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) will issue an indictment accusing, in one way or another, Hezbollah of being involved in the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and many others. It is now all too clear that the “informed sources” quoted in various media outlets who told us with such certainty that an indictment would be issued by mid-October were wrong. This deadline passed without incident and yet the media conjecture continues, fueling the perpetual fear of sectarian civil strife.


The debate has reached fever pitch, with everyone from the American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad throwing in their two cents, and politicians from both sides of Lebanon’s political divide holding endless press conferences. But as the STL has descended into farce, Lebanon’s real problems have — as usual — taken a backseat.


As we wait for Damascus, Riyadh, Tehran and Washington to decide on our “post-indictment” fate and our supposed leaders bicker over “false witnesses,” we should pause to ponder why we have allowed the STL to take progressive policy reform hostage. Scratch beneath the surface and what has everyone so hot under the collar reveals itself as little more than political posturing, hyperbole and the dark arts of distraction and deception.


Firstly, it is nothing less than comical to talk about witnesses before an indictment is issued, as no one yet knows whose testimony will be considered. The prosecutor has not announced who will be used as a witness or who will be accused; the furor is supposition.


What’s more, calls to try the ‘false witnesses’ in the Judicial Council — a permanent tribunal of five senior judges and no jury that adjudicates threats to national security based on a cabinet decision and therefore violates international judicial norms — is a testament to how far we are from real judicial reform or being able to ever realize “the truth.”
Even more illogical is the dichotomy at the heart of Hezbollah’s position: On the one hand the party has called for those who tried to contaminate the STL with false testimony be held accountable, but on the other it has accused the tribunal of being illegitimate and called for it to be scrapped. Hezbollah emphasizing the importance of the veracity of witness testimony automatically confers some degree of legitimacy to the proceedings and, ultimately, the outcome they lead to. They can’t have it both ways.


On the other side of the fence, the so-called Hariri camp recently admitted politics motivated it to wrongly accuse Syria of involvement in the 2005 assassinations, while rumors abound of a collusion between the March 14 movement and the original prosecutor. Now, incredibly, they insist that the institution’s credibility has not been damaged.


Given the absurdity of these and other acts in the STL tragicomedy, the fact that both political camps continue to propagate the idea that at any moment the tribunal could cause the government to crumble, taking the country with it, is telling of how far they will go to avoid doing their jobs.


By contriving conflict with talk of violence in the streets and the collapse of the state, Lebanon’s politicians have conveniently drawn people’s attention away from the fact that their water tanks are empty, their food is rotting in the fridge as electricity cuts for hours in the heat and their cars are stalled in choking traffic.


It’s no coincidence that when these issues began to boil this summer, the STL card was played; nor will anyone be surprised when it’s promptly shuffled back into the deck. Everyone already knows that Lebanon’s bilad al kubra, the ‘countries of influence’, do not find sectarian conflict in their interests at this juncture and that no one, even if they wanted to, can fight Hezbollah.


By that time, our politicians will likely have found another excuse to keep us scared into submission and their pockets lined with our money. At some point the joke will get old. But until then, it looks as though we will all have to be content with being laughed at.

First published in Executive Magazine’s November 2010 issue


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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