BEIRUT â€” After months of bombings, assassinations and political upheaval, many Lebanese fear the worst is yet to come as the United Nations wraps up its investigation into the killing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Some prominent politicians and journalists have reportedly fled the country. Others stay cooped up at home, fearing assassination if they ventured out. And ordinary Lebanese are so confused by the rumours they don’t know what to believe.
When the results appear in the coming weeks, pessimists predict a new wave of violence. A few optimists say nothing will happen.
“Tensions are simmering, and we fear what the next few weeks will bring us,” said blacksmith Hussein Saleh, 70, as he sipped dark, sweet tea with a friend. “May God protect us.” Anti-Syrian lawmaker Gibran Tueni, speaking to LBC TV from Paris Monday, said he expected “those who will be hurt by the truth” to try to destabilise the situation in the country, either through bombings or assassinations.
The German prosecutor who heads the UN investigation, Detlev Mehlis, has a deadline of mid-September to finish his work, but he may ask for an extension.
“Lebanon has just plunged into a period of very critical weeks whose outcome is hard to predict,” Abdul-Wahab Badrakhan wrote in the newspaper Al Hayat on Monday.
Politicians, lawmakers and columnists worry about the impact of Mehlis’ findings on a tiny country with 17 different sects and the legacy of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
Some fear a confrontation between Shiite and Sunni Muslims if the Shiite organisation Hizbollah is found to have been involved in the February 14 assassination. The party has denied any role in the killing.
Others expect a clash between the army and Islamists if the probe blames militants.
Many wonder how events will unfold if the investigation points the finger at Syria, the big neighbour that has considerable influence in Lebanon. Last week, the United Nations accused Syria of refusing to turn over documents to the investigation and ignoring requests for interviews.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, in comments published in the German magazine Der Spiegel, has denied any Syrian involvement in the killing of Hariri, who was seen by many as a silent opponent of Syria.
Some pro-Syrian politicians in Lebanon say one should not rule out an Israeli and a US role in the assassination.
Syria controlled Lebanon for 29 years until it was forced to withdraw its troops in the wake of Hariri’s assassination. Opponents of Syria’s role in Lebanon have accused Damascus and its allies in the Lebanese security services of involvement in the killing of Hariri and a spate of bombings that followed.
Anti-Syrian journalist Samir Qassir and former communist leader George Hawi, a critic of Syria’s policy in Lebanon, were killed in the subsequent explosions. Syria and the Lebanese security services have denied any involvement.
Christian lawmaker Michel Aoun, who waged an ill-fated war of liberation against Syria in 1989, said fears of the probe’s outcome should not cripple the country.
“If the investigation implicates Syria, are we going to wage war on it? And if it acquits it, are we going to invite Syria back here again?” said Aoun, according to his press office.
Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Fuad Saniora have also sought to allay fears.
“Talk that the truth will be a blow to the country is just talk,” said Saniora recently. “No, the country will not turn into ruin.” Some Lebanese, however, appear to be keeping a safe distance.
Hariri’s son, lawmaker Saad Hariri, is abroad at the moment. So are several pro-Hariri legislators and journalists, according to Al Hayat newspaper.
Walid Jumblatt, a leader of the anti-Syrian coalition, rarely leaves his mansion outside Beirut.
Aoun has said he tightened his security after receiving information that “four Lebanese leaders” were marked for assassination: Himself and three others. He did not say where he got the information.
How does someone like Saleh cope with the tensions? “I smoke,” he said, pulling a cigarette from his pocket.
He quoted a popular saying: “When worries multiply, smoke and the problems will solve themselves out.”