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Lebanon's future turns on indictment

The moment of truth for Lebanon has come.

Two days ago, Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare sent a draft indictment over the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to his colleague, Daniel Fransen, the STL pre-trial judge. Mr. Fransen's job now is to review it and decide whether or not to confirm it; this may take up to 10 weeks.

Members of Hezbollah, the Lebanese politico-militant group, and possibly Syrian individuals, will be accused of the crime, but what remains a complete mystery is the nature of the STL's indictment and the manner with which it will be viewed and received by the Lebanese people. Will it be credible or controversial? Will independent Lebanese find it convincing or disappointing? The answers will determine the fate of the STL and perhaps that of the entire country.

Regional efforts to solve the crisis between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah over the STL were pronounced dead a week ago. Hezbollah and its allies immediately withdrew from the government and caused its collapse. The political crisis continues to deepen. and the struggle over who will become the country's next prime minister has just started.

I suspect that there was no Syrian-Saudi "deal" over the STL to begin with — just consultations between Riyadh and Damascus over the fallout of the impending indictment. Both countries and others in the region worry about Sunni-Shiite unrest in Lebanon because of possible spillover; therefore, they have every interest in preventing or containing potential sectarian violence. The current effort by Turkey, Syria and Qatar to hold a Lebanon summit seeks to make sure the crisis in Lebanon does not explode.

Because of the fog that regional diplomacy over Lebanon continues to create, many observers seem to have forgotten that there is a legal track that is progressing (albeit slowly) and that should have a final say over how events will unfold in Lebanon. International justice, not regional horse-trading, is the ultimate arbiter of whether Lebanon will find long-term peace and security.

But for justice to run its course, a credible indictment by the STL is an absolute necessity. The indictment, as a strong indicator of how good a case the STL has, is the critical first step upon which everything else is built. It must satisfy expectations built over the years, and the outcome must be convincing; otherwise the whole system falls apart. We know that Hezbollah will reject, perhaps violently, any indictment against it, but it matters greatly how the Lebanese people will view and react to the STL's decision.

If Mr. Fransen approves a controversial indictment (I am not suggesting he will), this will be judged by independent Lebanese and Lebanese civil society — those who will lead the country and rebuild its future — as illegitimate. The STL must win the war of public opinion (local and international) as well as the hearts and minds of those Lebanese who aren't decided and don't have narrow sectarian allegiances.

Even given its history, the current impasse in Beirut is uniquely dangerous because it could lead to something never seen there before: A bloody Sunni-Shiite clash with Christians sandwiched in between and al-Qaida involved in the battlefield — a nightmare for Lebanon and the entire region. While a deficient indictment should not be blamed for potentially causing any violent acts in Lebanon, historians will judge that it was the trigger that led to another Lebanese civil war.

Contrary to what many have argued, the STL is the only thing that can save Lebanon and hold present and future killers accountable. But free-minded Lebanese are desperately hoping for a credible indictment so they can believe it and lend their full support to the international institution.

It all depends on what Mr. Fransen has at hand and what he decides to do with it. A few weeks ago, Mr. Bellemare promised the Lebanese that he would only issue an indictment if he is confident that it will satisfy. The promise of one man has never been more crucial to the future of a nation.

Meanwhile, regional and international diplomacy has a single, key job to do: not bargain over the STL but keep Lebanon from burning as it awaits Mr. Fransen's decision. That should be the only mission of friendly, outside powers for the next few weeks.

Bilal Y. Saab, a Lebanon consultant for the U.S. government, is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His e-mail is bilalsaab50@hotmail.com.

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