Despite the mass protest movements for political change that began in Iraq and Lebanon in October 2019, today both countries stare into an abyss of bankruptcy, crumbling social services, poverty and the threat of renewed violence without any sign that political elites will take steps toward reforms.

A demonstrator along blocked Hamra street during a protest against the falling Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, near the Central Bank building, in Beirut, Lebanon, March 16, 2021. Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

In addition, the continued deterioration of state capacity only furthers the ability of outside powers to wield influence. Lebanon’s GDP shrunk by 25 percent in 2020 and half of its population is food insecure. Iraq’s rising joblessness, corruption and failing public services were made worse in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices. The prospect of state breakdown is no longer a threat but a lived reality for many. The urgency of this dire situation is changing the stakes for those who want to uphold the status quo as well as for those who challenge it.

In a context of rapid deterioration of the state and public services, political violence has taken center stage, as the debate about recent assassinations of two prominent intellectuals in Iraq and Lebanon shows. Some see the killings as a warning sign of “a whole new era awaiting us,” a dystopian time when social institutions crumble, norms erode and violence is commonplace, as Lebanese commentator Wissam Sa’ada wrote after the February 4 assassination of his friend, the intellectual and activist Lokman Slim.[1] Slim went missing on the night of February 3, 2021 on his way back to Beirut after visiting friends in South Lebanon. He was later found dead in his car, shot six times in the chest and head.[2] The fact that Slim was a well-known critic of the Shi’i political party Hezbollah, and killed in a territory largely controlled by it, led Lebanese commentators opposed to the party to accuse it of the assassination. Many people are also raising broader questions. Have intellectuals become fair game again, as they were during the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990)? Is Lebanon seeing a return to the political violence of the 1980s when Shi’i leftist writers like Hussein Muruwa and Hassan Hamdan (otherwise known as Mahdi ‘Amel) were killed? Or to the assassinations in the mid-2000s of intellectuals like Gebran Tueni and Samir Kassir? And if so, what does this mean for the growing confrontation between those who support and reject the existing political system?

Have intellectuals become fair game again, as they were during the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990)?

Iraqi commentators shared similar unease in the wake of the July 6, 2020 assassination of Hisham al-Hashimi. Mostly publishing in Arabic, al-Hashimi was one of the most respected Iraqi political analysts, a leading scholar on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and informal adviser to several political figures, including Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. CCTV video footage from the al-Hashimi estate shows three motorcycle riders lurking around the house awaiting his return home at night. As he parks his car, one gunman runs over and shoots him dead. Like Slim, it is not known who killed al-Hashimi. Some evidence suggests the killers were either mercenaries hired by Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed, Iraqi Shi’i militia, or part of its networks.[3] Iraq scholar Renad Mansour views the killing as an unintended consequence of recent US military actions in Iraq, which forced some of those capable of providing protection for al-Hashimi to go underground and unleashed more rogue groups willing to use violence.[4]

Although their politics and methods differed, al-Hashimi and Slim had much in common. Both were prominent intellectuals with political clout and both sided with the popular uprisings launched in October 2019 against the governing political class in their respective countries. Both received warnings and threats and were the targets of continuous attempts to shut them up. Slim was known as an intellectual activist who threw his weight in with Lebanon’s protesters and publicly criticized Hezbollah. Al-Hashimi had grown more outspoken against government corruption and violence against peaceful protesters. Due to his support of Iraq’s October protest movement and close proximity to the interim prime minister, many Iraqis interpret his killing as a threat against the prime minister and a demonstration of the de facto sovereign power wielded by powerful militias that kill with impunity.

While many details of what occurred are still unknown, both cases show how political norms may be changing in the aftermath of popular protest movements and in the context of deepening crisis. The killings targeted the individuals themselves but, as forms of performative communication, they also targeted those whose aspirations were voiced by Slim and al-Hashimi. In peacetime, rules may be violated, but those violations are understood as exceptions and not the norm. The risk, in both countries, is that any semblance of norms regarding the use of violence is breaking down under the weight of economic crisis, political corruption, penetration of regional and international powers and deep divisions in the population. These are the very grievances that animated the 2019 uprisings and their revolutionary aspirations. But is it possible for popular movements to stay aloof from international powers and their intersections with shadowy networks in local politics? In contrast to the high hopes of 2019, the killings of Slim and al-Hashimi reveal an impasse today where the “whole new era” could resemble 1980s Lebanon and Iraq of the mid-2000s.

 

Lokman Slim—Revolution Through Documentation

 

Lokman Slim devoted his life to documenting and analyzing political violence. The 2005 documentary Massaker, produced with his wife and artistic partner, Monika Borgmann, retells the story of the 1982 massacre in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in southern Beirut through interviews with former militiamen.[5] By anonymizing the perpetrators, the film provides raw, unedited insight into political violence. Slim and Borgmann challenged state-imposed amnesia surrounding the horrors of the civil war and the unrepentant murderers still at large, who remain protected by the amnesty law of 1990, and the unwillingness of the political class to address war crimes. By promoting documentary films, archives, exhibitions and other forms of memorialization, Slim sought to show that violence in Lebanon was never simply the product of internecine religious or other identity-based fault lines, but the outcome of deeper economic and political networks. Memory and documentation, for Slim, could expose the illusion of lawfulness that underpins impunity in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern states. He promoted this agenda in his cultural non-governmental organizations UMAM and Hayya Bina, but also through literary and historical publications through the publishing house Dar al-Jadeed, founded in 1990.

Memory and documentation, for Slim, could expose the illusion of lawfulness that underpins impunity in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern states.

The aim of documenting and confronting internal corruption and violence in Arab societies brought Slim from the anti-imperialist left to an increasingly liberal-left position. In the late 1970s he supported one of the radical left factions in Lebanon, the Arab Socialist Action Party, which worked closely with the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). After the PLO’s expulsion from Lebanon in 1982, he and many others on the left adopted a more self-critical line that locates the crisis of Arab societies in internal cultural, political and economic structures. Hailing from a prominent Shi’i family, Slim perceived Hezbollah’s dominance over Shi’i Lebanon as an erasure of the rich history of his home region in the southern suburbs of Beirut and an affront to Lebanese pluralism. To Hezbollah, he was a suspiciously pro-Western voice with close ties to American officials. Indeed, he often criticized the movement. In an article published immediately after Slim’s death, his journalist friend Mona Alami even intimated that he was about to expose possible ties between Hezbollah and the August 2020 explosion in Beirut harbor that he supposedly discovered by working with an inside defector.[6] If found to be accurate, Slim went much further than critiquing Hezbollah’s role in general terms or producing documentary films for an intellectual audience: Alami claims he was looking into possible contacts between black market traders who were facilitating Hezbollah’s activities, purportedly linking them with figures in the Lebanese Central Bank. If true, this would have changed the stakes of his engagement in the revolutionary project significantly.

Since his death, Slim’s motto “Zero Fear” has become a meme on Lebanon’s social media, while others firmly believe that he was a tool for American and Saudi interests. Time may validate or undermine such claims and counterclaims. United Nations human rights experts raised concerns over the integrity of the Lebanese government’s probe into the Slim murder, calling for a “credible and effective investigation” to bring the killers to justice.[7] But in the intractable war between political camps in Lebanon, even solid evidence may not persuade supporters to change their views. Rather than sparking a public debate about impunity, the murder has drawn the lines even more sharply between those involved with Lebanon’s 2019 October uprising who wish to upend the status quo and those who defend Hezbollah’s special role as a resistance movement against Israeli hostility. The leftist pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar suggested that the timing of Slim’s death, in the midst of Israeli threats and American sanctions, was suspicious and that it would be used “to intimidate the opponents of the camp that Slim worked with, in order to stop any democratic discussion about the policies, positions and activities of the Lebanese camp allied to Saudi Arabia and America.”[8] The idea that the killing could have been a false flag operation designed to incriminate the resistance adds insult to injury for Slim’s supporters. They point out that he talked openly about the threats he received from Hezbollah. Indeed, he declared in December 2019 that he would hold the Shi’i party responsible for any action against him or his family. Other activists now worry that his death could mark the beginning of a wave of assassinations designed to completely kill off what they see as a revolutionary movement for a new political order in Lebanon.

The murder of Slim has made it clear that Hezbollah is now a central issue for the uprising. Since the beginning, Lebanon’s revolutionaries have argued over whether to engage or confront Hezbollah, replaying debates that took place during the 2011 protests against sectarianism and the 2015 “You Stink” campaign, which eventually split those movements. How does a movement confront the political class without becoming entangled in the conflict between Lebanon’s opposing camps and their international backers in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United States? Lebanon’s revolutionaries have been very conscious of this challenge and have fought to resist political cooptation, arguing that all sectarian political elites must be confronted (as heard in their chants of “all means all,” kullon ya’ni kullon). A smaller camp in the uprising, however, has maintained the need to defend and protect Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel. Slim believed that the confrontation had to include, and perhaps even start with, Hezbollah. He did not shy away from printing those views in the Saudi-owned newspaper al-Arabiyya that also brought forward Mona Alami’s accusations. For those who believe that Hezbollah killed him, it may no longer be possible, or even desirable, to decouple the popular protest movement from the international forces plotting the downfall of Hezbollah. If so, as writer and researcher Samer Frangie wrote, the murder of Lokman Slim has shown that Hezbollah is now the dilemma at the core of the Lebanese social contract.[9]

 

Hisham al-Hashimi—A Scholar in the Revolution

 

Compared to Lebanon, political violence is more normalized in Iraq. Under the banner of the October 2019 revolutionary movement, large swaths of Iraqis confronted what they saw as a failed post-2003 political system and were met with repression. Thousands of protesters have been detained, tortured or murdered—including human rights advocates, doctors, journalists, social media personalities and writers. Prominent activist Safa al-Saray became one of the symbols of what they call the October Revolution when he was shot in the head with a tear gas canister.[10] Other notable activists like Tahseen Osama and Reham Yaqoub were assassinated in August 2020 in similar circumstances to al-Hashimi.[11] What makes al-Hashimi stand out is his stature as a widely respected analyst within the Iraqi political establishment and international community who did not easily fit into one political faction.

What makes al-Hashimi stand out is his stature as a widely respected analyst within the Iraqi political establishment and international community who did not easily fit into one political faction.

The life and work of al-Hashimi is intimately tied to the circumstances of his murder. Most well-known for his work on ISIS, al-Hashimi rose to prominence due to his distinct biography coupled with his astute analytical skills. Born into a Shi’i family, he converted to Sunni Islam in his youth at the height of Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign in the early 1990s and slowly adopted a more Salafist orientation. Jailed at Abu Ghraib prison by the Ba’ath regime for anti-government activities, he was released in the general amnesty prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. After a short stint as a cleric for Ansar al-Islam—an Islamist resistance group in Iraqi Kurdistan fighting against the occupation—he was detained by US forces. After a falling out with al-Qaeda, of whom he was always skeptical, he fled to Syria. Returning during a 2009 amnesty, his life changed radically. He began working as a journalist and later as a security researcher for an Iraqi think tank. Due to his extensive network and deep knowledge of the different Sunni groups, he soon became one of the most respected and trusted sources in the fight against ISIS.[12] Condemnations of his murder from across the political spectrum in Iraq including Qays al-Khaz’ali, leader of the Iran-backed militia ‘Asa’ib ahl al-Haqq, as well as from leading Iraqi and international scholars, journalists and UN and US officials, illustrate his reputation as a respected analyst.

As the Iraqi October uprising unfolded in 2019, bringing millions of Iraqis into the streets to protest failing state services, unemployment, corruption and the sectarian governing system, many Shi’i hardliners and their media outlets cast the demonstrators as saboteurs and foreign agents.[13] From a distance, al-Hashimi supported the popular movement by becoming increasingly vocal in his criticism of elite corruption, governmental mismanagement and the deep entrenchment of militias inside the Iraqi state. In Iraq’s politicized media, disagreements are common but commentators usually shy away from naming and shaming individuals or single groups. But this usual discretion did not keep prominent conservative politicians from issuing threats against al-Hashimi, urging him instead to focus on ISIS and refrain from criticizing Shi’i actors and political elites. In this regard, al-Hashimi clearly challenged the red lines of what was deemed tolerable.

Al-Hashimi only grew bolder in his criticism. Prior to his murder, he published a lengthy investigation that analytically went much deeper than most political commentary on armed groups and explained the internal rivalries of the Hashd al-Sha’abi, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).[14] According to his friend and fellow analyst Hassan Hassan, by the time al-Hashimi was killed he was further investigating the deep entrenchment of powerful militias in the Iraqi state. Hassan—who obtained a copy of the unpublished work—has revealed that al-Hashimi’s final magnum opus on Iraqi Shi’i militias provides an in-depth look at the regional political relations that sustain the militias, such as the close working relationships between Lebanese Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Iraqi militias.[15] Al-Hashimi distinguished between those groups loyal to Iran and those loyal to the Iraqi Shi’i clergy within the PMF. He also looked at how these groups utilize the same business strategies and methods of enrichment that bankrolled al-Qaeda and ISIS prior to their takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.[16] These business schemes include control over “airport customs, construction projects, oilfields, sewage, water, highways, colleges, public and private property, tourism sites, presidential palaces; and the extortion of restaurants, cafes, cargo trucks, fishermen, farmers, displaced families.”[17] As documented by al-Hashimi, as well as The New York Times, militia control extends into almost all aspects of Iraqi bureaucracy, which allows them to influence the awarding of government contracts and the extortion of sub-contractors. In addition, they engage in checkpoint taxation, bribery and money laundering and exercise significant control over the US dollar auctions in Iraq.[18]

For years much of this information has been public knowledge to ordinary Iraqis, who often refer to the militias simply as mafias since their livelihoods and security depend on tolerating the militias’ ubiquitous taxation, extortion and protection schemes. Accusations about corrupt practices in Iraq is one thing, proving them with the detail, rigor and names to back up the claims as al-Hashimi did is quite another, and quite a different line to cross.

 

Blurred Lines, Red Lines

 

To their supporters, al-Hashimi and Slim were not killed for their political views but for their politics of documentation and what they may have been uncovering about the political workings of some of the most powerful militias in their countries. Politicians and armed militias in Lebanon and Iraq do not necessarily fear criticism from established intellectuals. Due to some of the militias’ devout political base, strength of fighting force and because elite corruption has undermined the countries’ political systems, criticism from intellectuals scarcely poses serious political challenges. Militias rely on a façade of conforming to political and legal norms. Critics can even be welcome as they confirm the supposed existence of tolerated dissent. Miriam Cooke, in the case of Syria’s cultural scene under President Bashar al-Asad, has called them “court jesters”—implying that some critics even know that their role is a kind of “pretend-criticism.”[19] This form of public criticism plays into the hands of some armed actors whose political discourse relies on framing themselves as the bastion of resistance against tyranny and Western interests, while also participating in formal democratic politics. In contrast, al-Hashimi and Slim were allegedly touching on more threatening critical registers amid rising domestic and geopolitical tensions.

If they were indeed killed for their commitment to uncovering how powerful militias operate within their countries’ political systems, killing them half-openly sends a strong signal that the red line of acceptable dissent is shifting.

If they were indeed killed for their commitment to uncovering how powerful militias operate within their countries’ political systems, killing them half-openly sends a strong signal that the red line of acceptable dissent is shifting.
This type of political violence serves as a warning for potential transgressors, while at the same time maintaining the illusion of lawfulness that anchors impunity in the two countries. Many Iraqis and Lebanese view their state as largely a vessel for funding networks of trust and patronage among kleptocratic elites whose sanctioned practices include the trafficking of drugs, arms, people and pharmaceuticals as well as extortion-protection rackets and various money laundering schemes. Disclosing these networks, and how they tie in with the politics and illicit economies across the Middle East region and globally, may be necessary for the popular uprisings to successfully confront their political elites head-on. The question is whether it is possible to organize such a confrontation without falling prey to the geopolitical fault lines that continue to structure and constrain domestic politics, and if not, where that leaves the revolutionary project.

 

[Sune Haugbolle is professor in Global Studies at Roskilde University. Henrik Andersen is a PhD candidate in Global Studies at Roskilde University.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Wissam Sa’ada, “Biography of the Superb Lokman Protected from Oblivion,Asas Media, February 7, 2021. [Arabic]

[2] Joanne Serrieh, “Lokman Slim ‘May Have Been Tortured’ Before He Was Assassinated,” Al Arabiya English, February 5, 2021.

[3]Iraq’s Assassins,” produced by Ramita Navai and Mais al-Bayaa, PBS Frontline, February 9, 2021. “Kata’ib Hezbollah,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University, September 2020. Renad Mansour, “Networks of Power: The Popular Mobilization Forces and the State in Iraq,” Chatham House (February 2021) p. 37.

[4] Renad Mansour, “In Life and Death, Iraq’s Hisham al-Hashimi,” The World Today, August 1, 2020.

[5] Anton Mukhamedov, “I Don’t Like Talking About Fear,” Al-Jumhuriya English, February 11, 2021.

[6] Mona Alami, “Murdered Activist Lokman Slim was Facilitating a Hezbollah Defection Before Death,” Al Arabiya English, February 4, 2021.

[7] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “Lebanon: Intellectual’s Murder Needs In-Depth Inquiry to Dispel Doubts Over Justice System, Say UN Experts,” March 22, 2021.

[8] ‘Ali Husheeshou, “He was Kidnapped From Niha and His Body was Found 36 Kilometers Away: The Assassination of Lokman Slim,” Al-Akhbar, February 5, 2021. [Arabic]

[9] Samer Frangie, “This Is Not 2005,” Megaphone, February 12, 2021. [Arabic]

[10] Sinan Antoon, “I Will Visit Your Grave When I Go to Iraq,” The New York Times, December 16, 2019.

[11] Mizer Kamal, “Iraq: The Assassination of Basra Icon Reham Yacoub, Iran Is to Blame,” DARAJ, August 20, 2020.

[12] Mansour, “In Life and Death.”

[13] Zahra Ali, “Iraqis Demand a Country,” Middle East Report, 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).

[14] Hisham al-Hashimi, “The Internal Disputes in the Popular Mobilization Forces,” International Strategic and Political Research Center, July 1, 2020. [Arabic]

[15] Hassan Hassan, “How Iraq’s Top ISIS Scholar Became a Target for Shiite Militias,” Newlines Magazine, October 4, 2020.

[16] Dlovan Barwary and Koral Nuri, “Al-Qaeda Collects Five Million Dollars a Month from Mosul and the State Departments Facilitate,” NIRIJ (Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism), July 6, 2012. [Arabic]

[17] Hassan, “How Iraq’s Top ISIS Scholar Became a Target.”

[18] Robert Worth, “Inside the Iraqi Kleptocracy,” The New York Times, July 29, 2020.

[19] Miriam Cooke, Dissident Syria–Making Oppositional Art Official (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

 

How to cite this article:

Sune Haugbolle, Henrik Andersen "Political Assassinations and the Revolutionary Impasse in Lebanon and Iraq," Middle East Report Online, May 11, 2021.
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