THE BLOG

After Beirut Bomb, What Is Lebanon's Fate?

Last Friday at 2:45 p.m., Georgette Sarkissian left the bank in east Beirut where she worked serving coffee to employees and headed back to her apartment to make a meal for her three children, who had just returned from school.

She never made it home.

Sarkissian, 42, was on a side street close to Sassine Square when a 60 kilogram roadside bomb exploded with such ferocity that balconies were cleaved from buildings and window panes shattered hundreds of meters away. She was killed instantly.

At the same moment, school girl Jennifer Chedid, 10, was at her family home, waiting for something to eat with her brother Joseph and father Richard. The explosion hospitalized all three. Chedid is in a stable condition, but is a very poor little girl.

Sarkissian and Chedid are just two of dozens of civilians killed or wounded in the blast, which targeted Lebanese Internal Security Forces' intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, and which has thrown Lebanon once more into tumult.

Dozens remain homeless, and hotels have offered free accommodation for a week as forensic investigators comb the blast site and shops and businesses begin to fix the material damage the explosion wrought.

The bomb that killed Hassan, his bodyguard Ahmad Mahmoud Sahyouni, Sarkissian and another, yet to be identified passer-by, was so powerful, in fact, that wreckage surveyors could only identify the primary target by his wristwatch. Hassan's remains, according to his superior, were "unrecognizable."

Aside from the requisite messages of regret and condolences from senior ministers, the killing of Hassan has prompted an outcry from officials and civilians sympathetic to the opposition March 14 alliance.

He has been lionized by supporters who point to his excellent track record in foiling "collaborators" -- Lebanese spying on behalf of Israel, and terror cells affiliated with the likes of al Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam.

This was a man who was meticulous in his security detail, who planned his routes to and from work personally, who had returned to Beirut from Paris just hours earlier, reportedly against the wishes of the Internal Security Forces' top brass.

Hassan went from being a suspect in 2005 of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to the darling of the movement Hariri's son, Saad, who continued to administrate from his bases in Paris and Jeddah.

He was influential in the arrest of several high-profile spies, including Fayez Karam, a former Lebanese army general who served a little over 18 months in prison for passing information on to Israel, and Michel Samaha, a former minister who was arrested earlier this year and accused of seeking to carry out assassinations not unlike that of last week. Samaha is part of a Lebanese political axis staunchly supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and had been thought of as being part of the pro-Syrian "untouchables" in Beirut political circles.

Hassan was, in short, a marked man.

His killing was startlingly similar to the assassination of Wissam Eid, a member of the ISF investigation unit that coordinated with United Nations telecommunications data analysts in the Hariri case. His 4x4 vehicle was hit, like Hassan's, by a massive roadside bomb on January 25, 2008. Like Hassan, Eid got a televised funeral. Like Hassan, Eid may well have known things he was not supposed to know.

Indeed, Hassan's killing has reanimated memories of the worst excesses of the orgy of political assassination Lebanon experienced between 2005 and 2008, and the reaction from Beirut's political class has been nothing short of scandalous.

The outpouring of grief for Hassan -- a man who was essentially the head of one of Lebanon's (several) mukhabarat (or secret police) has been, perhaps understandably, unevenly distributed throughout society; here, one group's hero is another's alleged criminal.

There has been the inevitable paroxysm of sectarianized rhetoric -- this was, we heard, variously: An attack on Christians (the area of Sassine is predominantly Christian); an attack on Sunnis (Hassan was a Sunni Muslim from North Lebanon); an attack by Shiite Muslim Hezbollah; an attack by Alawite Bashar al-Assad.

Worse, the talk of religion from political figures translated into the streets, with mixed-sect neighborhoods -- or, rather, the junctions where single-sect neighborhoods meet -- experiencing heavy clashes, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli and parts of central and south Beirut.

Reports even surfaced on the erection of impromptu checkpoints, operated by masked gunmen, where the IDs of passers-by were checked -- the inference being that Lebanese identification cards usually list an individual's religion -- which, if true, represents a shudder-inducing reversion to the evil days of the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

Armed gunmen roam the streets in broad daylight, wielding weapons supplied by warlords-turned-political leaders who pay young, often unemployed partisans to deploy as human shields.

There are several reasons for Lebanon's propensity to descend into violence and division, more or less all of which have been discussed at length since the crisis in Syria awoke preexisting divisions in Beirut and elsewhere all those months ago. It is tempting -- necessary, even -- to blame Lebanon's politicians, who only ever claim to represent communities composed of co-religionists, for the situation. But this weekend has demonstrated, worryingly, the ease at which the scab covering Lebanon's intolerance can be picked away.

The chaos and lawlessness across the country has normally sensible, tolerant civilians saying things like, "I hate the [inside religious group]," or "Lebanon should be equally divided geographically between all sects, this is the only solution."

It prompts what has traditionally been a movement capable of mobilizing mass peaceful protests to goad supporters into an ill-advised and worse-fated attempt to storm Beirut's Grand Serail in a bid to force the collapse of the current government -- just eight months away from parliamentary elections (the attempted storming was subsequently denounced by politicians).

Whatever the tragedy in Lebanon -- be it an issue of security, natural or unnatural disaster -- the response is political. The opportunism displayed by many politicians in the wake of the bombing has been at times, frankly, unedifying, culminating with one leader reportedly thanking Sarkissian for dying.

The Lebanese army issued a statement on Monday saying that "the fate of the nation" was "at stake."

This will die down; relative normalcy will return to the streets. But this instant reversion to anger and division is a recurring phenomenon and the cycle of affront, reaction and retribution is growing exponentially. Meanwhile, the dead are buried.

The army called it right: The fate of Lebanon is at stake. But if leaders cannot prove that they have the best interests of the country at heart, and if they can continue to command (admittedly shrinking) militias and thug cells with total judicial impunity, Lebanon's fate is unlikely to be worth saving.