Lebanon slips further into the abyss

The assassination of Lokman Slim – silencing no lamb

Lokman’s killing underlines that the space for dissent is closing fast in Lebanon. Over the past year or so, the political leadership’s tolerance for criticism has been decreasing, with an increasing number of journalists and critics taken into custody. Maha Yahya reflects

The killing of Lokman Slim is another bad omen for Lebanon. Lokman was not just any activist. He was a vocal critic of Hezbollah, who chose to continue living in his family’s home in Haret Hrayk in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an area controlled by those whom he criticised harshly.

I met Lokman in 2004 with the late journalist Samir Kassir and Samir’s wife Giselle Khoury. Lokman, with his wife Monika Borgmann, had invited us to watch a private screening of a film they had produced on the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982. The debate that ensued was as harrowing as it was enlightening.

It was the first of many interactions over the subsequent two years around the memory of the civil war, questions of accountability, and commemoration of the victims, and their importance for Lebanon’s future. These debates dissipated after Samir’s assassination on 2 June 2005.

An agent for change

Lokman was also a harsh critic of Lebanon’s political class, of the repression of the uprising in Syria, of Iran’s regional involvement, and of much else. But he was also more than that. With Monika, Lokman went on to establish the UMAM documentation and research centre in his family home. UMAM aims to inform the future by addressing past atrocities.

Since 2005, the centre has been collecting information and establishing a database for all those killed, or who disappeared, during the fifteen-year Lebanese civil war. It has also made documentaries and organised discussions on some of the most painful episodes of that conflict. Their work is critical if Lebanon is to come to terms with the war’s legacy and is essential in determining accountability for the crimes committed during that time.

This work carried out by Lokman and Monika was vital in a country where the political leadership is largely made up of those who fought during the war. Lebanon’s conflict ended with the mantra of “no victor and no vanquished”. In 1991, parliament passed an amnesty law covering most of the crimes committed during the conflict.

No collective processing of the civil war

Militia leaders moved from the streets into government to occupy the state and its institutions. The history of the civil war was never integrated into school curriculums. Knowledge of the war has largely been defined by individual points of view, not by a collective Lebanese effort to remember the war to better transcend it.

 

To understand the killing of Lokman one must also look at Lebanon’s broader context. Since October 2019, when the Lebanese took to the streets to protest against the corruption of their political parties and leaders, the country has been facing an economic collapse that has impoverished more than half the population and decimated the middle class.

Rather than addressing the sources of discontent, the leadership has remained unwilling to implement the reforms needed to unlock international financial aid, for fear that this would undermine their influence over their constituencies. Lockdown measures associated with COVID-19 have only hastened this economic breakdown.

At the mercy of a corrupt sectarian system

Without outside financial support Lebanon will continue to sink into the abyss. Ironically, by protecting their system and continuing with a business-as-usual approach the political parties have also signed its death warrant. That may not be a bad thing, but in the meantime millions of Lebanese will suffer terribly.

The catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut last August 4 further increased the anger of the Lebanese and their vocal criticism of the political leadership. Six months later, no one has been held accountable for what happened and the official investigation is going nowhere. For many Lebanese there was no question as to who was responsible, when protestors hanged effigies of their political leaders on gallows set up at a demonstration in Martyrs’ Square last year.

Lokman’s killing underlines that the space for dissent is closing fast in Lebanon. Over the past year or so, the political leadership’s tolerance for criticism has been decreasing as more and more journalists and critics have been taken into custody by the authorities.

Yet Lokman’s killing went much further. It heralded a return to political assassinations as a means of silencing those in opposition. The crime has sent shock waves across Lebanon and beyond, especially among opposition groups and, more so, among Shia dissenters. For many this brought back memories of 2005 and the years that followed, when Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni, and others were assassinated.

One wonders whether Lokman Slim would have been killed had Kassir’s and Tueni’s killers been brought to justice. That is why we should have serious doubts as to whether those who assassinated Lokman will themselves be brought to justice.

Maha Yahya

© Carnegie Middle East Center 2021

Maha Yahya is director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.

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