Impeding Impunity: Lebanon’s Explosive Politics

Its buildings pockmarked with fresh bullets, Beirut now hangs in a tense state of limbo. Last Wednesday, a demonstration organized by Shia Muslim groups broke into gunfire, killing seven with dozens more injured. The events signal rising tensions that started fourteen months ago by a port explosion, in which a fire triggered the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, killing more than 200 civilians. At the time, promises were made by political officials for accountability, which took the form of a judge-led inquiry.

Now begun, many politicians vehemently oppose the purportedly biased probe. Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister, and Ghazi Zaiter, a former public works minister, lie at the heart of the controversy. Both are MPs with the Shia Muslim Amal party, allies of the powerful Hezbollah movement, who, among others, have been accused of negligence about the explosion. They deny any wrongdoing and have filed complaints against Judge Tarek Bitar, whose resignation Shia protestors were demanding last Wednesday.

Hezbollah and Amal blamed an opposition Christian faction, the Lebanese Forces (LF), for Wednesday’s crossfire. However, LF leader Samir Geagea condemned the violence and claimed on Twitter that “the main cause of these developments lies in the presence of uncontrolled and widespread weapons.” Commentators have warned that recent developments should not go overlooked nor underestimated. Writing in Carnegie’s Mideast blog, Michael Young cautioned a worsening of relations that could “take the country into a much darker period than the one that exists today.” Furthermore, speaking to the BBC, Kim Ghattas implored the international community to “speak out in pursuit of justice and accountability,” and that “those threatened with law and accountability before, have often resorted to violence to silence those calls.” Ghattas highlighted how the situation was likely to worsen before improving.

The investigation is viewed by Hezbollah and Amal as highly politicized, accusing it of focusing too narrowly on their allies. However, for a country also in the throes of a deep economic crisis with exorbitant inflation, and three-quarters of its population reduced to poverty, without power and lacking basic goods, time is of the essence. The Court of Cassation, Lebanon’s supreme court, has rejected the complaints made towards Judge Bitar, who is not said to hold any political affiliations and has suggested he resume work. But pressure falls on the shoulders of the judge himself, as Ghazi Zaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil will regain parliamentary immunity when the house returns to session.

Revenge often assumes a cyclical pattern and these scenes, alas, are far from foreign to the Lebanese people. The 1989 Taif Agreement marked the beginning of the end of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) which resulted in 120,000 deaths and an exodus of almost one million people. In 1991, all political crimes were pardoned and militia groups dissolved, except Hezbollah. At the same time, the LF began to slowly regroup as Lebanon’s only large non-sectarian institution.

The antagonists have until now held a common interest in maintaining the system, riddled with patronage and corruption, and managed to install at best a shaky peace. But Lebanon’s multifaceted and fragile political system balances power between its different sects, which, critics believe, has entrenched the political elite and stifled any hope of reform. Despite nationwide rallies in 2019, citizens rarely succeed in shaking the foundations of the ruling class. Now, army vehicles and barbed wire fences divide the predominantly Christian Ain el-Rumaneh and the Shiite Muslim Chiyah – bringing back memories of a West-East divide that once defined the war.

For now, Beirut is frozen in an uneasy truce. But with pent-up anger among many Lebanese, heated sectarian tension and a political class desperate to retain its privileged position, a descent into further violence loom worryingly on the horizon. Elections due to be held next spring provide the potential for change, and citizens remain optimistic that the impunity granted to politicians will finally be impeded. For the moment, however, the opposition possesses no viable political program or candidates who can challenge the political elite. After fourteen months, will justice become another causality of Beirut’s explosion?