The widely reported mob-style hit on activist and intellectual Lokman Slim on a back road in southern Lebanon last Wednesday night follows a well-known and sad pattern in Lebanese politics: When the Iranian-backed Party of God’s public standing takes a dip, someone pays, always. Someone must, of course, because the “Resistance” — the party that delivered “Divine Victory” over Israel in 2006 — can never be faulted for what has been wrought upon the much-beleaguered Lebanese people.
Faulting Hezbollah was Slim’s daily sustenance. Former prime minister Saad Hariri noted in a tweet on Thursday that “Lokman Slim was perhaps clearer than everyone in pinpointing where the threat to the country is coming from… He did not compromise nor back down.” Hariri knows only too well the price of being uncompromising where Hezbollah or its patrons (read: Iran and, previously, Syria) are concerned; the life sentencing, in absentia, at the Hague in December of a Hezbollah operative for his own father’s murder is a ready reminder of the party’s reputation in this regard.
That Slim, himself a Shia, had long criticized Hezbollah’s monopoly over his own community’s social, political and economic life — and by extension Lebanon’s — and somehow lived to tell about it, until now, was a mystery to some. One theory was that by allowing a certain level of dissent within the Shia community that was never permitted to domestic foes without, Hezbollah could glean some internal democratic veneer. Besides, Hezbollah’s communal control and Lebanon’s confessional polarization has been such that the party did not worry as much about competition from within, especially from one armed with only a sharp tongue and independent mind.
Not that Slim previously escaped the Party of God’s attention or ire, being regularly labeled in its print, broadcast and social media as a fifth columnist for both expressing his views and a willingness to engage with any and all in the foreign diplomatic and press corps to warn about the threats posed by Hezbollah to Lebanon’s and the region’s stability. The threats to his own person were real, as he knew, and he was not without options and opportunities to weather the periodic storms in some academic sinecure, somewhere safe; but Slim chose to remain in his own country, continuing to expose, publicly, what he knew to be true, regardless of the risks and regardless if anyone at home or abroad were listening.
Those of us who knew Slim, knew that not only would he not be stopped from speaking his mind, but in a country that is — in parts, geographically, as well as politically — divided, he would not be prevented from going anywhere at any time to visit family, friends, favorite restaurants or popular scenic destinations wherever they might be. It was his particular way of evidencing that no one group or individual could define the narrative of his country or its future. That his murder reportedly occurred while on a visit to southern Lebanon, which Hezbollah treats as its own fief (and after dinner with friends no less), attested to his refusal to accept any exclusivist national claims.
So, what changed in the calculations of Slim’s adversaries? Why did the documentary filmmaker-archivist suddenly pose a threat that would no longer be tolerated?
The answer is that the veil of “Divine Victory,” behind which Hezbollah tried in vain for years to conceal its misdeeds, has long since fallen. Fully succeeding in its cherished goal of state capture through the application of violence, Iranian subsidies, and criminal enterprise, the Party of God finds itself no longer able to absolve itself before an increasingly skeptical and suffering public of responsibility for the perilous state into which Lebanon has descended: 80 percent of its currency’s value lost in the last year; 55 percent of the population, according to the UN, living below the poverty line; and tens of thousands still homeless and unemployed six months after a massive explosion ripped through central Beirut, ignited by explosive materials stockpiled in government facilities. COVID-19 may have kicked the country, but it was already down.
The realization that it can no longer hide from accountability or cloak itself in the symbols of resistance to explain away Lebanon’s woes is that which has changed; the chink in Goliath’s armor that Slim exposed and the reason why he was silenced.
Owen Kirby, who had known Lokman Slim since 2005, is an international development professional with experience in both the governmental and nongovernmental sectors; He separated from the U.S. Agency for International Development in January 2021, having most recently served as Director of the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI).