Why now? Lokman Slim’s killing in Beirut throws up many questions

For years Mr Slim endured Hezbollah's harassment

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The murder of Lebanese writer, filmmaker, and activist Lokman Slim last week continues to provoke outrage in a country where most major crimes remain unpunished. However, Mr Slim's assassination could indicate that those who killed him feared losing ground in the political system.

Mr Slim was an exceptionally courageous man, living in the Haret Hreik quarter of Beirut’s southern suburbs controlled by Hezbollah. Party faithfuls resented his criticisms, voiced as they were by a Shiite who was, so to speak, of the house, from a family that had been in Haret Hreik long before Hezbollah’s arrival. For years Mr Slim had endured the militant party’s harassment, but had steadfastly remained in the area.

That is why when Mr Slim was found murdered last Friday in southern Lebanon, most Lebanese concluded that he was killed by those who had spent years making his life difficult. Mr Slim’s sister declared that the family “knew the killers", clearly indicating whom it suspected of being behind the crime.

More intriguing was why Mr Slim was eliminated now, when he had spent decades coexisting uneasily with Hezbollah. Lebanon’s two main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, have maintained a tight rein over their community, but this has not meant that they routinely resorted to murdering their critics. On the contrary, Mr Slim’s assassination was shocking because it was so rare.

epa08993678 German Monika Borgmann (2 L) , wife of assassinated activist and Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim with his sister Rasha (R) receive condolence from relatives at their home in Beirut, Lebanon, 07 February 2021. According to the victim's family, they are preparing to bury him in the garden of the family's home in the southern suburbs of Beirut, after the criminal investigation ends and the body is received. Slim found on 04 February 2021 shot to death in a rental car that was found in Nabatiyeh, southern Lebanon. The motive behind the assassination was not clear.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER
Monika Borgmann (2 L), wife of the late activist and Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim with his sister Rasha (R) receive condolences at their home in Beirut, Lebanon, February 7. EPA

So, if it is ever confirmed that Mr Slim was killed on the orders of, or by someone loyal to, Hezbollah or Amal, what could have been the reason? The only plausible explanation is that he was assassinated to send a strong message, first, to the Shiite community, then perhaps beyond that, to other political actors.

Why would the parties need to send a message today? The fact is that the political class, of which Hezbollah and Amal are a part, has done nothing to alleviate the deep economic crisis that has engulfed Lebanon since November 2019. In fact, the two parties tried to neutralise the uprising against the political leadership by mobilising youths to intimidate demonstrators.

Was Mr Slim's killing an indirect way of signalling impatience to Hezbollah's allies in the FPM?

By doing so, they helped prop up a rotten political order that has impoverished around half the Lebanese population. Since that time, the previously cohesive political cartel has been engaged in paralysing disputes, since the one thing that had unified its members – sharing their plunder of the Lebanese state and economy – no longer holds. Instead, each leader is now trying to portray himself as a paragon of virtue against the other thieves in the country.

Because Hezbollah opposed the protesters in 2019, it must now face the reality that many Lebanese hold it responsible for the disastrous state of affairs in the country. Even within the Shiite community, there are incessant reports of rising dissatisfaction with Hezbollah and Amal because of the economic distress.

In such a context, it would make sense to issue a warning that no one should push Hezbollah and Amal too far. Mr Slim’s murder may have served as such a warning. But if the parties were indeed involved in the crime, it would show, above all, their vulnerability with regard to the situation today.

Nor has Hezbollah been able to unblock the political stalemate of the government-formation process. On several occasions the party has tried to push its ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, to be more flexible in negotiations with prime minister-designate Saad Hariri. All these attempts have failed, including an intervention by Wafiq Safa, a senior Hezbollah security official, who is also responsible for relations with the FPM and its leader Gebran Bassil.

For a long time it was said that Hezbollah was unwilling to endanger its ties with Mr Bassil, and more importantly with his father-in-law, Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Yet that may no longer be true. In recent weeks, senior party officials have pressed more insistently for an accord. Last week Amal leader Nabih Berri shot down one of Mr Bassil’s key conditions in his talks with Mr Hariri, which he would not have done without Hezbollah’s consent.

In other words, we may be reaching a stage where the persistent deadlock in Lebanon begins undermining Hezbollah’s interests, by making more likely new public protests against the parties in power due to worsening economic woes. Therefore, was Mr Slim’s killing also an indirect way of signalling impatience to Hezbollah’s allies in the FPM? That may be an interpretation too far, but it is also certainly possible that Mr Bassil and Mr Aoun read it that way.

Mr Slim once told me, speaking of Hezbollah, that “like many totalitarian parties, it has managed to internalise fears in others; it has moved its oppression to the minds.” If the party was involved in his death, it would be ironic if it did so because it felt that this proposition was no longer true.

Michael Young is a Lebanon columnist for The National