Since the time of Ottoman rule, Beirut has been held in high regard as a cultural and intellectual hub in the Levant. Its cafés became grounds for political discussions and literary reviews, seeds of Arab nationalism were planted over games of backgammon and urban plans for new roads connecting the North to the South and the East to the West were sketched on disposable napkins.
The city, still home to writers, historians and scholars of different persuasions, hailing from Lebanon and across the region, has enticed activists and world leaders near and far to see the children and poets of the Levant for themselves. It is perhaps this penchant for intellectual curiosity and unfettered ambition in all faculties that poses the country’s greatest threat to either side of the world’s ideological axes.
While neighboring countries wrestled with free speech and its guardians, Lebanon’s constitution allowed for a culture of intellect and critique to persist, despite the odds. Emerging online publications, spearheaded by veteran journalists and academics, independent of political parties and religious affiliation, have helped create a digital space where free speech can be encouraged and preserved thus upholding one of Lebanon’s lasting legacies. But on the six-month commemoration of the Beirut port explosion, the country mourns a freedom it has long taken for granted.
Citizens on February 4 woke up to the news of Lokman Slim’s assassination. A Lebanese political activist known for openly condemning Hezbollah’s fear tactics and its underground drug trafficking and money laundering operations, Selim’s body was found dead inside his car in a village near Nabatieh, after his family had cried out he had gone missing.
Bits and pieces of past interviews and tweets appeared on social media and news channels honoring his relentless fight against sectarianism and corruption. The videos showed a man adamant in his belief that there was no sovereign Lebanese state, as long as Hezbollah continued to permeate every facet of the country’s institutions and ministries. In one clip, Slim can be seen marching amidst the crowds borne out of October 2019, making their way to the city center, chanting and dancing to the sounds of their revolution.
The implications of Slim’s death for the ongoing investigation into the August 4 explosion sets a precedent for dissenting voices, painting a bleak future for a country on the edge of failed-state status. Earlier this week, protestors, including families and individuals affected by the Beirut explosion, rallied outside judge Fadi Sawan’s home in Achrafieh to transfer the investigation into the port’s mismanagement to more capable hands.
Civil society organizations like Human Rights Watch have already raised the alarm over due process violations regarding people arbitrarily charged with being involved or conspiracy. Selim’s death affirms that any investigation conducted under the current administration cannot be impartially or independently pursued, if the tentacles of political allegiances and debts asphyxiate those tasked with what is now the dangerous pursuit of justice.
Moving forward, any evidence that will assist in a potential case against the government’s mismanagement of unclassified tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the port will reluctantly be withheld from the public domain in a bid for safety, and mercy from the hitmen lurking from Beirut’s newspapers and streets. When free speech is penalized, accountability is expunged.
Herein lies the last emblem of hope that Lebanon’s youth had in the restoration of their country. The bullets in Slim’s head reinforce the same message already made clear by a string of suspicious homicides committed in 2020, including last month’s Joe Bejjani, a freelance photographer who had obtained forensic images as a first responder at the scene of the port.
From across the country and around the world, a predictable truth is settling into the bones of an exhausted and depleted people: justice will not prevail – instead, it will be sold to the highest bidder.
Now, anticipation builds while waiting for Hassan Nasrallah’s next appearance on television screens. On January 15, he warned against politicizing the explosion and called for refraining from sectarian analyses of the disaster. Hezbollah supporters, already on the defense with fingers pointing at Slim’s alleged Zionism and anti-Shiite sentiments, despite being Shi’a himself, correctly pointed to the meager threat his criticisms posed to the organization.
Ironically, it is in Slim’s relative insignificance that trouble arises. Affiliates and supporters of the political regime have created a culture of fear by taking matters into their own hands, determining who carries on living in fear and who gets a gunshot to the head.
Will Sayyed Nasrallah quell speculation or dodge accusations? With a new body buried underground, atop the 200 lives lost in August, will it matter? This is not a tale of a people against tyrannical leaders, where the former emerges victorious. It is the people against the people, tooth and nail.
To answer Gibran Khalil’s age-old question of whether Lebanon will persist in the shadows of death and the stench of graves?
Yes, it will.