Almost two years have passed since August 4, 2020, a date permanently etched onto the hearts and minds of the Lebanese, wherever they may be. What else is there to say and which hasn’t already been said about one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, where hundreds of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate exploded? The heartbroken faces of the families of the blast’s victims, who continue to protest and demand justice on the fourth day of every month, say it all.
A few days following the blast, a massive protest took place in Beirut. Citizens angrily demanded accountability for what had happened, only to be met by tear gas and an ever-increasing repressive state security apparatus. The hapless government composed of so-called technocrats, appointed in January 2020, in a bid to quell an uprising that broke out months earlier, resigned shortly thereafter.
With such carnage and devastation, and with a humanitarian catastrophe piling on the already worsening economic crisis, surely something had to change. After all, even the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, made a sudden visit to Beirut and went on to declare that “Lebanon’s future is being decided now.”
Yet, even the blast could not budge Lebanon’s ruling class, the vast and fluid nexus of allied and competing sectarian warlords-turned-politicians, bankers, and monopolistic merchants, who have all taken over the state following the end of the civil war, plundering it as they please. Despite countless investigative reports and leaks published throughout the years, accountability has remained elusive, if not a distant mirage. Impunity and corruption have been the key pillars on which the post-war system has been built.
A Judicial Charade
The manner in which the investigation over the Beirut port blast has been conducted is arguably a prime illustration of Lebanon’s post-war sectarian regime and the impunity that characterizes it.
Days after the blast, the Council of Ministers referred the case to the Judicial Council, a special court tasked with looking at cases dealing with national security and other grave matters. Fadi Sawan, the investigative judge appointed, was known for being reluctant to go after senior officials. After all, Lebanon’s judicial system lacks the foundations necessary for an independent judiciary. By design, the executive branch maintains a tight grip on judicial appointments, whereby not only are key positions divided on a sectarian basis, but pliant judges are often rewarded with promotions and senior offices. Meanwhile, judges deemed threating to the ruling oligarchy, face arbitrary punishments.
To the surprise of many, judge Sawan appeared to have broken off with his past, stating that he would stop at no obstacles – be it legal immunities suspects may enjoy or unofficial red lines that shouldn’t be crossed. In December 2020, he charged three former ministers and the caretaker Prime Minister with criminal negligence.
Then, the charade that is Lebanon’s judicial system came on full display. Two of the former ministers from the Amal Movement – who also serve as members of parliament – filed a lawsuit against Sawan at the Court of Cassation, requesting his removal. Their reasoning? Sawan’s home was damaged by the blast and hence hampered his ability to be an impartial judge. In addition, they claimed that Sawan intentionally disregarded the fact that, as parliamentarians, they supposedly enjoy legal immunity – even though this immunity applies only when parliament is in session. On February 18, 2021, the suspects came out victorious and the court removed Sawan from the case, a major blow to the investigation.
The next day, judge Tarek Bitar was appointed as Sawan’s replacement. From the get-go, Bitar sought to have the immunity that ministers and parliamentarians supposedly enjoy lifted, and to pursue individuals who are documented to have known about the ammonium nitrate’s presence and failed to dispose of it safely. In addition to the individuals Sawan charged, Bitar sought to summon a former minister, also, a sitting parliamentarian. Lawsuits by the suspects rained down on the judiciary, requesting Bitar’s removal under the guise that he was committing judicial mistakes by seeking to pursue individuals who they claim enjoy legal immunity.
On October 14, 2021, supporters of the Amal Movement and its ally Hezbollah, protested near the Palace of Justice to demand Bitar’s removal. Earlier that week, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General had accused the judge of being biased and his investigation politicized; a month prior, a senior Hezbollah official reportedly delivered a verbal threat to Bitar.
The protestors were met by sniper fire from militants believed to be members of the Lebanese Forces, a rival party. Armed clashes ensued. Scenes reminiscent of the civil war were on full display. Seven people were killed, including a mother of five hit by stray bullets in her home, and a man delivering food on his motorcycle.
Ministers from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement then announced their boycott of cabinet sessions until a ‘solution’ to the judicial imbroglio was found. The newly-formed government, which styled itself the “Together for Salvation” government while being headed by a billionaire facing credible corruption allegations, was paralyzed. The line was clearly drawn. Either the system of impunity persists, with high-level officials remaining beyond any form of reproach; or civil strife and paralysis ensues.
Later on, one of the former ministers suspected in the investigation – a member of the Marada party, allied with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement – filed a lawsuit against Bitar at the Court of Cassation. In a tragicomic twist, the judge examining the lawsuit retired on January 12, 2022, keeping the lawsuit in limbo and freezing the investigation until further notice. Given the politicized nature of judicial appointments in Lebanon, replacing the retired judge appears to be a fraught process. Three days later, ministers from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement announced an end of to their boycott, and cabinet sessions resumed.
Since this instance, justice has been paralyzed, and no developments regarding the investigation have taken place. The coordinated defamation and slander campaigns against judge Bitar suddenly vanished from the landscape. Lebanon continues to be plunged into a socioeconomic abyss, with the ruling class refusing to take any measure to stem the collapse, so much that even the World Bank dubbed it a “deliberate depression” amidst “great denial” among the ruling elites.
Parliamentary Elections: Panacea to Impunity?
The Beirut blast and its attendant investigation have laid bare the monstrous face of the post-war spoils-sharing sectarian regime in Lebanon, where impunity and corruption serve as its cornerstone. Any form of accountability towards oligarchic power is not only unimaginable, but gravely punished, with the threat of civil strife paraded around should any red lines be crossed.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for May 15, 2022 - the first of this kind since the collapse began - a few promising electoral lists with prominent opposition figures and programs have been formed in certain districts.
Yet, an objective assessment of the electoral situation dashes any hopes for substantial changes to the political status quo. The sectarian makeup of the political system, the blatantly gerrymandered and convoluted electoral law, coupled with political money and expected incidents at the ballot boxes, make the whole process an uphill struggle. As if to further emphasize the impunity that reigns supreme in the country, segments of the ruling class shamelessly put forth two of the suspects in the blast as parliamentary candidates, alongside a notorious banker accused of ordering an assault on a journalist in 2020.
Despite all the well-justified misgivings towards the electoral process, at the very least, the elections should be viewed as one of the battlegrounds against the ruling class and the system of impunity and corruption that has served them all-too-well since the end of the civil war. After all, when the father of a young girl killed during the blast calls voting a “moral obligation,” then at the very least, ballots can be seen as a way to reject impunity.