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How Rafik Hariri's murder changed Lebanon

It's a crucial test for Lebanon: Nine years after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, a special tribunal in the Netherlands has opened against those allegedly responsible.

The Lebanese are divided over the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that begins in the Netherlands on January 16 in the case of the 2005 murder of ex-Prime Minister and businessman Rafik al-Hariri.

Abu Marwan feels the tribunal is very important. "Those responsible need to know that they won't get away unscathed," the 62-year-old clerk says. Ali Hamid doesn't share that view, however. As far as the owner of a supermarket is concerned, the trial is a US-Israeli conspiracy against the Shiite Hezbollah: "The Hezbollah fought against Israel and defeated the Israelis in South Lebanon, and now they're being punished."

A murder and its implications

On February 14, 2005, Hariri's convoy was bombed, killing the 61- year-old Sunni politician along with 22 others. The UN Security Council set up an inquiry that initially pointed at a possible Syrian involvement in the attack. The Lebanese government asked the Security Council to create an international tribunal to investigate the murder. Nine years later, the STL is set to try four Hezbollah members - in absentia, as the Shiite Lebanese party refuses to surrender the suspects.

The Lebanese people's attitude toward the international tribunal mirrors their political loyalties. Abu Marwan, a Sunni, supports the Future Movement founded by Rafik al-Hariri. Ali Hamid supports Hezbollah, which dismisses the tribunal as an intrigue designed by the West.

Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim

Borgmann and Slim research and document Lebanon's recent past

Conspiracy or revenge

Lokman Slim isn't close to either political side, but he is convinced the tribunal is a milestone in recent Lebanese history. There is no doubt, the 51-year-old says, that the tribunal will add a new element to the country's political culture, namely the principle of responsibility. "I feel honored to experience this moment, and to see how the Lebanese will deal with it," the historian and social activist says. "It's a real test."

At the same time, Lokman Slim is pessimistic, pointing out that many Lebanese regard the tribunal as a symbol of revenge, or of a conspiracy or the split of the country into a perpetrators on one hand and victims on the other - in this case Shiites and Sunnis respectively.

Lokman Slim and his wife Monika Borgman are committed to analyzing Lebanon's most recent past. On their Memory at Work website, the list the political murders in the Cedar state: a chronology of countless assassinations over the past decades, including the Hariri murder.

Lebanon has always managed to push aside every single political murder - until the Hariri assassination, Lokman Slim says. Once the special tribunal had been created, that deadly attack couldn't simply be swept under the carpet, the activist says.

A glimmer of hope

The Hariri murder strongly influenced political developments in the country. Initially, it seemed possible that the spontaneous and peaceful mass protests in the wake of the murder might force change in Lebanon's political system. In what became known as the Cedar Revolution, the Lebanese people took to the streets, demanding equality and calling for the cancellation of a system that stipulates the president must always be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliamentary speaker a Shiite. People protested irrespective of their religious affiliation.

Something was brewing in Lebanon then, Slim remembers. There was the issue of the legitimacy of Hezbollah's weapons after the Israelis withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, the question of the presence of the Syrian army, and calls for reforms of the political system. To Slim the protests amounted to a "Lebanese carnival."

Secretary General of Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, on a giant screen

Hassan Nasrallah has led Hezbollah for more than two decades

Headed for confrontation

The protesters' main demand - the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian troops from Lebanon - was quickly fulfilled. Today, many former protesters are still disappointed because the uprising for domestic reforms failed.

In the weeks following Hariri's assassination, the March 8 and 14 political coalitions emerged - alliances that still determine the direction the country is taking. On March 8 in Beirut, Hezbollah called a pro-Syrian rally. The March 8 alliance includes the Shiite Amal, Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. Anti-Syrian Sunni and Christian forces named their alliance for the mass demonstration on March 14, 2005. Ever since, these two alliances have stood face-to-face. Conflicts include the eternal controversy over the disarmament of Hezbollah.

For many Lebanese, Rafik Al-Hariri - the Lebanese Sunnis' uncontested leader - symbolized reconstruction in the aftermath of a civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Above all, the politician promoted infrastructure projects. Almost nine years after Hariri's death, the country faces a Sunni-Shiite challenge never experienced before: not only the Hariri murder tribunal divides the Lebanese people; the war in neighboring Syria has also split the population and led to heightened sectarian tension in Lebanon - political stability is not on the horizon.

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