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West Beirut billboard featuring the late Rafik el Hariri demands Truth for Lebanon. ((Neil Macdonald))

BEIRUT — Rafik Hariri looks out from under his famously bushy eyebrows onto a busy intersection here, smiling the serene smile of a billionaire.

His portrait is huge, luminous against a black background. He is this country's official martyr. Under his likeness, in Arabic, the billboard demands: Haqiqa li ajil Loubnan. Truth for Lebanon.

Nowadays, those words seem forlorn, almost poignant.

Once, the slogan held great power, when hundreds of thousands of outraged Lebanese flooded into the streets after Hariri's assassination in February 2005.

The so-called Cedar Revolution ended Syria's occupation of the country. The police state next door reluctantly withdrew its army, temporarily cowed by the near-consensus in Lebanon, and in the West, that Syria had ordered Hariri's murder for daring to advance Lebanese independence.

The furnace of Lebanon's public anger back then put even the Islamist zealots of Hezbollah back on their heels. Syria is one of the Party of God's patrons, along with Iran.

But that was then. In the 5½ years since, any hope of a new, independent Lebanese order has evaporated.

The rest of the world's attention is now occupied elsewhere, and Lebanon's old masters are back. The regime in Damascus, plainly intent on moving back in here, has made it clear to Lebanon's political class that the Cedar Revolution and people power were nothing more than momentary historical anomalies.

Truth and trust versus stability

Hezbollah, intent on someday instituting Islamic governance, is issuing naked threats, backed by the power of its highly trained army.

And the men who once patriotically exhorted the Lebanese to rise up, to take back their country, are running scared.

A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Saad Hariri stunned the country by publicly stating he had been wrong to have ever blamed Syria for the massive explosion that killed his father and more than 20 other people in his motorcade.

"At some point, we made a mistake," Saad Hariri declared. "At one stage, we accused Syria of assassinating the martyred premier. That was a political accusation, and that political accusation is over."

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who also once blamed Syria and helped drive the establishment of a formal United Nations inquiry into the assassination, has another view entirely today.

"Truth and justice are important," he reportedly told France's foreign minister last week. "But the stability of Lebanon is more important."

Foreign journalists in this once-relaxed city are now assigned 'minders,' as they are in Damascus, or were in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. All is now forbidden. Interviews dry up at the last moment. No one wants to antagonize Syria or Hezbollah.

Clearly, Jumblatt and Saad Hariri prefer to continue breathing. Both men have travelled to Damascus recently, as supplicants. One of Hariri's aides told me privately that $4 billion in personal wealth couldn't protect the father, and it won't protect the son, either.

And Beirut, easily the most vigorous, emancipated, glittering capital city in the Arab world, has descended into a miasma of fear, apprehension and uncertainty.

Foreign journalists in this once-relaxed city are now assigned "minders," as they are in Damascus, or were in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. All is now forbidden. Interviews dry up at the last moment. No one wants to antagonize Syria or Hezbollah.

Journalist Michael Young of the Beirut Daily Star is one of the few left here with the courage to write stinging, unflinching columns about what's going on. He mocks the reversals of people like Hariri and Jumblatt, reminding them that their sworn affidavits are on file with the UN inquiry, and he doesn't bother with euphemisms when he talks about Syria's and Hezbollah's ambitions.

He reminds me of Gibran Tueni, and I told him so. Tueni was another fearless editor I interviewed here a decade ago. The Israelis had just ended their occupation of South Lebanon, and Tueni was among the first to declare that Syria's "protection" was therefore no longer needed, or welcome.

Today, Tueni is an official martyr, too, with a public square named after him and a huge likeness hanging from the headquarters of An Nahar, the newspaper he once ran. He was blown to bits by a car bomb 10 months after Hariri's murder. There were several others, too, all Lebanese nationalists.

Young modestly plays down any comparison to Tueni, but he has also asked that the interview be done in private, in a closed bar, and looks worried at the presence of a bar employee who has taken an interest in the proceedings.

Afterward, Young murmurs to me that I should be very careful, that it's dangerous to nose around in the affairs of certain parties here. He's among several who offer the same warning.

No defendants, not a single charge

As for the UN inquiry into Hariri's murder, once Lebanon's great hope for rule of law, it is now regarded as something between impotent and farcical.

The tribunal, and its UN predecessor, after groping and blundering around Lebanon for 5½ years following false leads and evidence almost certainly planted by the people behind Hariri's murder, decamped to The Hague. There more than 100 employees live in UN-furnished luxury, most collecting tax-free salaries, spending tens of millions a year, and reassuring everyone from time to time that their diligent pursuit of the culprits continues.

The tribunal has its own building, prosecutors, judges, investigators, support staff and even defence lawyers, but no defendants. It hasn't issued a single charge.

"It can now be legitimately regarded as a historical inquiry," says one disgusted former investigator. The tribunal's occasional reports are devoid of real content, and Young blames the tribunal as much as he blames Lebanese lethargy for the evaporation of political will.

Still, the tribunal remains an irritation for the real powers in Lebanon.

Hezbollah chieftain Hassan Nasrallah has been predicting lately that the tribunal intends to indict some of his people for carrying out Hariri's murder, and made clear that he will not tolerate any such charges, let alone allow any arrests.

Reportedly, Nasrallah has warned Saad Hariri and Jumblatt that if they embrace any indictments of Hezbollah, "it will be a hundred times worse than May 2008," when Hezbollah fighters briefly took over Beirut, turning their guns on fellow Lebanese.

For good measure, Nasrallah has declared that Israel was behind Hariri's assassination and is controlling the UN tribunal. The accusation is ridiculous, as Young has acidly written — he calls it "Nasrallah's lesson in memory loss" — but blaming the Israelis is always a reliable tactic in the Middle East. It even has the virtue of sometimes being true.

Saad Hariri, frightened, responded that yes, the commission should perhaps investigate the Israeli theory, and then publicly excused Syria, too.

Greatly encouraged, Hezbollah immediately demanded that the UN tribunal be dissolved and deprived of funding (it was set up by Lebanese law and is partially paid for by the Lebanese government, at least for now).

Last week, Jumblatt was asked on television whether he fears what's coming in the next two months. He replied that he fears what's coming in the next two weeks.

Actually, no one more perfectly embodies the pliancy necessary to survive Lebanese politics than Jumblatt. I interviewed him, too, back in 2000, when people like Gibran Tueni were demanding the departure of the Syrian forces that had moved into Lebanon in 1976 amid civil war.

He told me then that in his view, Syria's continuing presence ensured the country's stability. Over coffee later, I remarked that those words were somewhat ironic, considering the Syrians had killed Jumblatt's father, Kamal.

"There is no shortage of irony in the Middle East, Mr. Macdonald," he replied, deadpan.

Haqiqa li ajil Loubnan. Truth for Lebanon, indeed. Truth is an exceedingly rare commodity here. And the Cedar Revolution is gone, like the nagging memory of a baffling dream.