A year ago last week, the criminal negligence of the Lebanese sectarian ruling elite blew up the country’s capital. On August 4, 2020, at 6:08 p.m. Beirut time, one of the world’s most devastating non-nuclear man-made explosions ravaged through the heart of the city, sending shockwaves across the globe. One fifth of what was allegedly a 2,754-tonne shipment worth $2 million of ammonium nitrate, unloaded in 2013 at the port of Beirut, blew up resulting in the killing of over 200 human beings, the injury of above 6,000 Beiruti residents and left $4 billion worth of material damage. The explosion displaced 300,000 people and was heard as far as Cyprus. The psychological, mental and social implications of the explosion are set to drag on for over a decade.
More so, no official census has been issued until this moment regarding non-Lebanese workers and resident victims that were killed that day, which suggests that the death tally could inch higher. We must also remember that these are human beings with families, friends, lovers, emotions, dreams to realize—not just numbers. But for the predatory Lebanese republic, people are not even worthy of being numbers in an official death toll.
To add insult to injury, not a single senior Lebanese official has been held accountable yet. Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s current Prime Minister-designate tasked to form a government, is the same Najib Mikati that presided over the caretaker government in November 2013 when the Moldovan-flagged ship, the Rhosus, entered the port of Beirut carrying the lethal cargo. Mikati denies receiving any reports informing him of the ship or the hazardous material’s entry. Meanwhile, the investigation appears to have hit a rough patch. Six months after the port explosion, the criminal sectarian ruling elite booted the first chief prosecutor that was investigating the explosion, an attestation of the level of impunity they enjoy.
At the time, Lebanon’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, removed Judge Fadi Sawan following legal challenges by senior political officials he had initially accused of negligence that led to the explosion. Sawan charged three former ministers and the outgoing prime minister, Hassan Diab.
The court called for a new investigating judge to be appointed to lead the probe. While the move made a mockery of justice, it was meant to draw red lines for any ambitious swing Lebanon’s judiciary might want to take at the perpetrators. The message was clear: politicians are above the law and untouchable.
Ironically, the court’s decision to oust Judge Sawan cited “legitimate suspicion” over his neutrality because his house was damaged in the explosion; the precedent of victims bringing their perpetrators to justice must not be established in the country, no matter the cost.
The culture of impunity reigns supreme in Lebanon and denominates the country’s ever-astounding political dealings between its constituencies. At least since 1975 and up until today, one linear vector pierces through every event that took place in the country, whether it is political assassinations, armed conflicts or large-scale and mindboggling corruption that now has a global reputation–impunity lies at the heart.
The country’s “second republic,” which came into existence in 1989 following almost 15 years of sectarian infighting and regional and international meddling, was cemented through an agreement negotiated in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, designed to end the civil war and “return to political normalcy.” In retrospect, the agreement—officially dubbed as the National Reconciliation Accord—regardless whether fully implemented or not, laid the foundation for three decades of sectarian segregation, political violence, social injustice, rampant corruption, lack of rule of law and accountability and all forms of human rights abuses.
While the civil war resulted in an estimate of 70,000-100,000 casualties—no official documentation has been issued until this day—a general amnesty law was adopted in 1991 pardoning all crimes committed during the civil war.
The law covered the mass human rights violations and abuses which dominated the war period by none other than the parties that currently constitute the tandems of the sectarian system in place.Perpetrators became judges and khakis turned into tailor-made suits, military gains during the war were translated into parliamentary blocs and sectarian enclaves transformed into clientelist fiefdoms within what constitutes the state: government portfolios, state-funding allocation, public sector employment, and services. The foot soldiers of yesterday became the bureaucrats of today and instead of treading towards state-building, institutional reform, truth seeking and transitional justice in a post-war era, the war spilled over into what is now the country’s flagship political and sectarian bickering over each’s piece of the pie. It has dragged on for three decades now.
This has only cemented the culture of impunity and allows for the understanding of why a year since the port exploded in Beirut, almost no one has been brought to account.
Following the ouster of Sawan, Lebanon’s justice minister appointed judge Tarek Bitar to take the lead on the investigation into the port explosion. His appointment was approved by the country’s Supreme Judicial Council. It was expected of Bitar to have learned lessons from his predecessor and to understand his limitations. However, mounting public pressure and a change of fortunes for the sectarian ruling elite with their regional and international backers might’ve provided the incumbent lead investigator with the agency needed to take bolder moves.
While Lebanon’s political factions previously enjoyed international patronage in the form of cash flows from international donor conferences into the Ponzi scheme engineered by Lebanon’s Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, it appears that things have altered, and the world is taking notice of the winds of change blowing in the streets of Lebanon.
The United States has already began targeting Lebanese politicians with sanctions based on corruption charges, while France led an uphill battle within the European Union to reach a consensus and adopt a legal framework for a sanctions’ regime that aims to target Lebanese individuals and entities “responsible for undermining democracy or the rule of law in Lebanon.” Meanwhile, political money from Saudi Arabia, which initially funded the Hariri dynasty and then funded the “pro-Western, anti-Hezbollah” camp previously known as March 14, has all but dried up. Lavish gulf cash deposits into Lebanon’s Central Bank which often oiled the sectarian system in place, breathed life into the economy, stabilized the currency and eventually reduced tension among the different constituencies, has been brought to a halt.
Although it remains too early to judge the effects of such moves on the system and its future, or how determined the EU and the U.S. are in putting their money where their mouths are, it is almost certain that the ruling sectarian elite has lost much of its credibility. Hence, sights are set on the country’s upcoming parliamentary election, which those stakeholders look to leverage in an attempt to re-legitimize themselves.
Beginning of July, Judge Bitar surprised everyone when he moved to summon a range of powerful politicians and security officials for questioning as suspects. Bitar’s cunning move sought to sweep away “protections” that often-allowed politicians and their cronies to operate with impunity in a system of their own making. Bitar assigned dates to question, as a suspect, the caretaker prime minister, three former ministers on suspicion of homicide with probable intent and criminal negligence and asked the caretaker interior minister for permission to question, as a suspect, General Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s General Security agency and one of the country’s most powerful figures given he enjoys the full backing of the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah.
To undercut the impunity those figures often enjoyed knowing he is stirring up a hornets’ nest, Bitar requested that Parliament lift the immunity of three current lawmakers who served as government ministers in the years surrounding the explosion and asked the bar associations in Beirut and Tripoli to lift the immunity that is conveyed by membership of two ex-ministers.
Bitar’s targeting of suspects spanned the political and sectarian spectrum in a step meant to defuse the most powerful tool politicians and their cronies retain in their arsenal: sectarian targeting. Sectarianism in the country has only served to entrench cultural differences among Lebanese sects and to preclude national consensus, often needed in post-conflict environments for the establishment of the rule of law. In the case of the port investigation, public consensus seems to be building in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice given all Lebanese were affected equally by the incident. Building frustration with the failures of the sectarian elite is also helping to diffuse “sectarian rallying” behind the suspects, in favor of calls for accountability.
Yet, while Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” in Lebanon, weak state institutions, the laws and the constitutions often bend to the will of the sectarian elite. The system inherently moved to protect itself in response to judge Bitar’s moves. The caretaker Minister of Interior Mohammed Fahmi rejected the request for permission to question Ibrahim, after initially claiming that he would allow for such questioning. Fahmi surely came under pressure to recant his initial approval.
Meanwhile, dozens of parliament members from the blocs of Hezbollah, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement—Hezbollah closest ally, and ex-prime minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, signed parliamentary motion allowing a special judicial body, the Supreme Council, to investigate and try the suspects.
Lebanon’s Supreme Council consists of seven members elected by parliament and eight appointed senior judges. While charged with matters of impeachment for senior government officials, it has never tried anyone. More so, with the constitution providing for the separation of powers, the council logically and legally contravenes the principle. Moving the supposed “trial” of the perpetrators of the port explosion to the council, is just another ploy by the country’s sectarian elite to evade justice. Within such framework, they become the perpetrators and the judges simultaneously.
For now, public uproar is proving a bulwark in face of the sectarian elites’ shady dealings in an attempt to evade justice. The Speaker recently announced that Parliament is ready to lift the immunity of its members and allow for questioning without giving any commitment to when that would happen. In the meantime, Hariri called for lawmakers’ immunity to be lifted by suspending all constitutional and legal regulations that allow for it. His move is meant for political consumption.
Paradoxically, while the urban legend often augmented by international media regarding Lebanese resilience has been shattered, the resilience of the sectarian system is there to live another day. The labyrinth it is might still allow its constituencies to pull rabbits out of hats in order to avoid accountability. After all, the risk of lifting immunities is beyond the port explosion, as it could start a snowball effect in corruption-related cases. Yet, with obvious fissures growing within the system and a compounding political and economic crisis, it is safe to pose again a question: will the port explosion, in retrospect, be the Chernobyl of the ever-entrenched Lebanese sectarian system, similar to what Chernobyl was to the Soviet Union?