The Meaning of Lokman Slim

April 16, 2021   •   By Evan Pheiffer

LOKMAN SLIM WAS FOUND SLUMPED over in the passenger seat of his Toyota with four bullets to the head and one to the back on February 4. Though his car was found outside Addoussieh in South Lebanon, his phone was retrieved from a field 36 kilometers away in Niha al-Janoub, a village he frequented once a week to have lunch with a friend, a general in the Lebanese Army. That he was kidnapped and murdered but kilometers from the UNIFIL barracks, where around 600 French and 200 Finnish soldiers were stationed, was a message to more than activists.

Lebanon’s first political assassination in nearly a decade has sent shockwaves through a country already reeling from economic collapse, widespread political discontent, and a massive unsolved explosion that destroyed much of Beirut in August. Slim was the country’s most well-known critic of Hezbollah and its creeping hegemony over Lebanon’s venal, fragile, and hated political system, and his death is a grim portent of things to come.

Even for a small country full of brilliant, outspoken people, Slim stood out. A vocal critic of Syrian and Iranian intervention in Lebanon’s internal affairs, he played a vital role in the Cedar Revolution that led to the end of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon in April 2005. When the Syrians themselves rose up six years later — an event he had long predicted — he took to the streets and airwaves in defense of their revolution. Even when Russia intervened and it turned south for the rebels, he continued to host Syrian refugees of every persuasion in his Beirut office.

A harsh critic of all illiberal regimes, Slim reserved the worst of his pen for Hezbollah and the Shia Crescent that stretched from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus up to the front door of his gated white villa in South Beirut. This was telling, for he himself hailed from one of the most prominent Shia families in the country and, though atheist, was Shia to the core.

But he strongly rejected Hezbollah’s millenarian vision for Lebanon’s Shia, now the largest of 18 sects in this country of seven million. Launched in 1985, the Shia political party-cum-militia had drawn inspiration from two key events: the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The most adept at navigating Lebanon’s civil war and the low-grade chaos that has reigned ever since, it hasn’t hurt having Tehran and Damascus in its corner.

Though now Hezbollah’s headquarters, Slim’s ancestral village of Haret Hreik had once been a mixed Maronite-Shia idyll of orange trees and lemon groves where people made their own arak, danced by the light of the moon, and dated whomever they fancied, regardless of sect. Not for nothing did Slim’s father, a prominent Shia lawyer and member of parliament, marry a Christian of Egyptian origin, Salma Merchak, while Slim himself married a German, Monika Borgmann. Lovers of life, these were people who practiced what they preached.

With Borgmann at his side, Slim went on to make two groundbreaking films, Massaker (2005) — which took a frighteningly candid look at the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, during which an estimated 3,000 Palestinian refugees were murdered by Israeli-affiliated Maronite militiamen — and Tadmor (2016) — a traumatic portrait of life inside the Assad regime’s most brutal prison, the eponymous hell outside Palmyra known to inmates as “the kingdom of death and madness.”

With Borgmann’s help, he also launched two of Lebanon’s most innovative NGOs. The first, UMAM Documentation and Research Centre, was an archive dedicated to the memory of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975–1990). For a tormented country often given over to willful amnesia, this alone significantly contributed to removing the weatherized scar tissue that prevents the Lebanese from coming to terms with their recent history of violence, dispossession, and occupation. As Alex Rowell wrote in Al-Jumhuriya, “If the day ever comes that Lebanon creates an official museum consecrated to the war, it will owe a considerable debt to Slim’s efforts.”

The second NGO was Hayya Bina (Let’s Go), an organization dedicated to promoting a nonsectarian Lebanon by empowering liberal and independent voices, particularly among women and liberal clergy. In addition to a nationwide female education program that brought rural women together from various faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds, Hayya Bina also sponsored mixed faith iftars and opportunities for Muslim and Christian clergy to converse on an equal footing. As a bootstring employee of both organizations, I often took part in both.

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Slim’s death triggered an outpouring of sympathy from the American, French, and German embassies; Biden’s new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken; and a variety of European and Middle Eastern capitals. Not only did the octogenarian war criminal President Michel Aoun — another kid from Haret Hreik — condemn his assassination, but even Hezbollah, Aoun’s governing coalition partner, did too. Though Slim’s sister, Rasha al-Ameer, insists it is clear who killed her brother, so far no one has claimed responsibility.

For years, Slim had had more than a symbolic target on his head. Long derided as the “Embassy Shia” for receiving ample funding from the US Department of State, it was no secret that he and his organizations were close to the Americans. Wikileaks from as early as 2010–2011 revealed this. In the spring of 2016, none other than junior Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo paid us a visit. Accompanied by his wife on a goodwill tour of the region, the Tea Party congressman — all politics aside, a remarkably kind and friendly man — was named director of the CIA barely six months later.

Saddling up to the Americans was bad enough for a Shia notable; suggesting a settlement with Israel was a step beyond the pale. Though the exact timing of his murder may forever elude us, one thing is clear: not merely advocating for a settlement with Israel but also encouraging Tel Aviv to (re)intervene in Lebanon’s murderously Gordian political knot, as he is widely accused of doing, is a move that only a man of extraordinary cojones would make.

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Though hated by both the Resistance and the anti-Zionist left in Lebanon, Slim’s ability to openly criticize the country’s most powerful bloc was also a product of his upbringing and social station: only a true “notable,” in the Arabic sense of the word, would have the courage or social capital to stick it to the Party of God from the heart of Haret Hreik.

This is what marks his death with a truly historic tinge: though not a turning point in Lebanese history, his murder is still a Rubicon of kinds. That’s because the Lebanon that he sought to bring about — secular, cosmopolitan, liberal, and well liquored — already existed. It was there wherever he went. Now that he’s gone, a small but important piece of the rich but troubled mosaic of 20th-century Lebanon goes with him.

Indeed, his very existence had been a knot in the Hezbollah-controlled cosmos. Outside the gates of Villa Mohsen Slim, built by and named after his illustrious father, was the world as it existed: a crush of yellow flags, mangled cables, and banners of bearded mullahs and neighborhood lads martyred in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Inside its gates, a sumptuous taste of bourgeois (prewar) Lebanon: of libraries, film screenings, debates, wine tastings, and diplomatic dalliances.

No wonder he was beloved among Western dignitaries, who retreated to posher parts of Beirut after “an evening in Dahiye,” as the city’s southern Hezbollah-controlled slums are known. Among many such illustrious guests over the years was a tipsy Christopher Hitchens, who, in addition to having an unfortunate tussle with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) that weekend, was captured at the villa mashing passionately into his corn on the cob during one such debate. In cosmopolitan West Beirut, where Hitchens had gone about defacing SSNP posters, he was given a midday thrashing. At the villa in Dahiye, he was safe.

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In some ways, Slim’s person was the exception that proved the rule. Every day that he lived and fought was proof that Hezbollah was neither all powerful nor fascistically intolerant. For decades the whiskey-sipping libertine lived side by side with the Party of God. As one journalist pointed out, if anyone should leave Haret Hreik, why should it be Slim? He had been there first. Paradise, with a little patience, might be regained once the party disappeared.

But fade into the end time ether it would not. Even worse, the tolerance that Hezbollah showed Slim highlights three darker criticisms often made about the man: first, that he was politically useless, had achieved nothing, and had never — until now, that is — come close to harming Hezbollah. “He was just a guy with a nice house who talked to the Americans,” as one critic put it.

The second criticism is more biting: that Slim was merely the “good cop” incarnation of the same ruling cabal that has monopolized wealth and social power in Lebanon since independence from France. The son of a rich MP, the argument goes, Slim was no different from the rapacious and incompetent ruling elite that he sought to replace. His resistance to the Resistance, they claim, was mere window dressing, not unlike Atatürk’s creation of a “loyal opposition” to give his young republic a veneer of multiparty democracy, which he banned the moment it showed any teeth.

The third criticism of Slim is most damning of all: that he longed just as deeply as Hezbollah to govern the Shia from above. After all, his father had been close with Raymond Eddé, the Maronite leader of the powerful pro-Western National Bloc in the decades before the civil war — and had been promised a ministerial position by President Bachir Gemayel shortly before Gemayel’s assassination in 1982. Had the Maronites and their Israeli allies won the Lebanese Civil War, Mohsen Slim would have likely gained control over Lebanon’s Shias. And passed it on to Slim, as is par for the feudal course in Lebanon.

If only history hadn’t told a different tale. Unbeknownst to most, Khomeini smashed the Shah, betrayed and crushed the Tudeh, and exported his prophetic revolution, while the Israelis botched their 1982 invasion. In the end, as one writer put it, the clerical feudalists vanquished the secular ones.

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These criticisms seem unfair, but Lebanon has never been a fair place. It exists both in time and out of it, a hundred demons dancing on the head of a pin. In a land where much is forgotten but nothing forgiven, there are many gradations of the truth. The Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf once asked his father, a newspaper editor who skimmed every paper from Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo each morning: “Which one should I believe?” “None of them and all of them,” said his father. “None of them will tell you the whole truth, but each of them will give you its own version of it. If you read them all, and are able to exercise discrimination, you’ll understand the essential.”

Slim, like any honest Lebanese, knew several truths himself. He graduated from communism to anarchism after his philosophy student days at the Sorbonne. Returning to Beirut toward the end of the war, he set up a freethinking publishing house, Dar al-Jadeed (House of the New). In addition to translating many works from French to Arabic himself, he supported unknown but promising young writers and brought out the memoirs of reformist Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. By the end of his days, many likened him to a neoconservative.

Slim’s big break came in 2005 when an anti-Syrian coalition of Christians, Sunnis, and liberals managed to force out the 14,000 Syrian soldiers who had occupied Lebanon in one way or another since 1976. He quickly established ties with the Americans, before long becoming one of their most trusted commentators. If anyone hated Hezbollah as much as Slim, it was Washington, DC. The group, after all, had been responsible for the murder of 258 Americans in 1983 alone.

According to those who knew him well, Slim’s influence peaked between 2005 and 2008, when it really appeared that Lebanon might cast off the shackles of its civil war legacy. It was during this time that he not only got his NGOs off the ground, but also released Massaker, which won awards in Berlin, Marseille, and Lisbon.

But as Tocqueville wrote: “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform.” After four years of drought and mounting inequality brought on by kleptocratic and half-hearted liberalization measures, massive protests broke out against the Syrian government in March 2011. True to its moniker of “Assad or we burn the country,” Damascus released scores of battle-hardened jihadis from prison and set about poisoning the revolution from within.

Whatever hopes there had been of demilitarizing political life in Lebanon were dashed after the Syrian Civil War began. With an ocean of jihadis on the march next door, Hezbollah was given a blank check to extend its tenuous control over the notoriously brittle Lebanese state — a task it has done with much jealousy and relish.

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This did not prevent Slim from trying. With all eyes on the Syrian crisis, Slim had the ears of Washington, DC, Berlin, and Bern. But this changed when Obama pressed for his historic Iran nuclear deal and ceased support for anti-Iranian forces in Lebanon, primarily Slim. Though the spigot was temporarily turned back on after a blitz across the neoconservative media landscape (with headlines like “State Department caves to radical Islamists”), it was not for long. By 2016, most of the funds had ceased, and by 2018 even Hayya Bina’s signature program, Teach Women English, had been canceled. Washington had lost its appetite for going after Hezbollah, at least via Slim.

He began receiving real threats on his life in 2019. Not only did a mob storm his villa, painting threats on the wall such as “suspended martyr” and “death to traitors” for his calls to bring down the (Hezbollah-controlled) government during what Lebanese now call the “October Revolution”; he also started taking these threats more seriously. Telling loved ones to consider anything that might befall him a “work accident,” Slim drew up his will and prepared for the worst.

“How’s Lokman holding up amid everything?” I asked a close confidant of his several weeks before his murder.

“You know how he is,” came the reply. “He loves change of any kind!”

Yet never in 30 years have things been as bad as they are now: the Lebanese pound has lost 85 percent of its value, the country’s dwindling forests burned in over 100 forest fires in 2019, cash reserves are gone, imports have been stalled, and a broader economic collapse exacerbated by the pandemic has brought the country’s middle class to within months of mass immiseration. Many are beginning to say things were better during the civil war: “At least then we had money.”

Though no one dreams Slim’s perpetrators will be brought to justice, his murder has also been seen by some as a sign of Hezbollah’s weakness. His killing is not unlike the string of assassinations in Beirut in 2004–2005 that preceded the Syrian departure. Among the intellectuals and activists then killed were George Hawi, secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party; Samir Kassir, a leading left-wing historian and journalist; Gebran Tueni, a prominent anti-Syrian publisher and lawmaker; and most famously, former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Attempts were also made on the lives of May Chidiac, a prominent anti-Syrian journalist, and Defense Minister Elias Murr, among many others.

Still, apart from the 2013 assassination of Mohamad Chatah, a prominent economist, diplomat, and finance minister, the Resistance went a decade and a half without shedding the blood of intellectuals or activists. That they would do so now is a sure sign of further chaos to come.

The journalist Mona Alami has it on record that Slim was on the verge of a huge coup: expatriating a leading Hezbollah defector with inner knowledge of the movement’s finances and money-laundering operations to the United States. For now, it’s as good an explanation as any. But this cowardly show of force does not mean that Hezbollah or the tinkering Lebanese spoils system is on the verge of collapse. As one scholar put it: “When all ships are sinking — and yours just happens to be sinking the slowest — doesn’t mean you’re weak.”

In the end, Slim was four things: brilliant, brave, careless, and, until February, protected — not only by the aura of American power, which had enshrouded him since 2005; he also had the strength of hailing from an influential family in a small and tightly knit country, fratricidal though it can rapidly turn. But Slim’s dream of a post-sectarian Paris of the East, where every man and woman has two fingers of scotch in their glass, was not to be. He was too far ahead of his time and too far behind it.

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Born and raised in St. Louis, Evan Pheiffer studied history and politics in New York, London, and Paris. A freelance writer and editor, he has been based in Istanbul since 2016.

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Featured image: "LokmanSlim-UMAM-15122018" by RomanDeckert is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.

Banner image: "Beirut close to plane descent" by marviikad is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.