Cancer of corruption destroys the soul of Lebanon
After the Beirut port explosion last year, the prospect of a failed investigation – let alone two – into the blame for this monstrous explosion would have sparked global disbelief. More than 200 people died when hundreds of tons of dangerously stored ammonium nitrate fertilizer caught fire in a port warehouse and exploded. Shockwaves from the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion could be felt as far as Cyprus and cause up to $ 18 billion in damage.
And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Lebanon was already facing escalating crises, triggered by the collapse of what financial experts have called “a state-sponsored Ponzi scheme” and a worsening pandemic. The August 4 explosion accelerated Lebanon’s downward spiral due to a free-falling currency, hyperinflation, political stalemate and massive erosion of sovereignty. Over 80 percent of the population lives in multidimensional poverty, lacking stable incomes and access to adequate housing, health care and education.
The port explosion did not only reflect evils deeply rooted in Lebanese politics and society. It also became a deadly demonstration of how decades of corruption and patronage caused Beirut to fall from its high Paris roost in the Middle East to a simple leper in the Levant.
Naturally, the port explosion required a serious investigation into its causes, if only to appease the destitute in search of answers and responsibility for their deceased loved ones. However, in a country ravaged by a confluence of crises, in part caused by the cabal of disconnected political elites, the investigation inevitably turned into a symbolic battleground pitting an already desperate public against a stubborn ruling class.
Sadly, political leaders appear to be dominating this battle given the recent suspension of the investigation for the second time. The suspension came at the request of two deputies who allege that Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of the investigation, is biased. It crowns a relentless campaign by the Lebanese authorities to cripple the investigation at almost every turn.
Judge Bitar had succeeded Judge Fadi Sawan, who was initially tasked with investigating the port explosion before being dismissed from his post by the Court of Cassation after bringing negligence charges against the former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three other former ministers. The blatant obstruction also involved the refusal to lift the immunities of the parliamentarians involved and the failure to respond to court summons or to appear for questioning.
The practice of protecting politicians, the connected and the well-to-do is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. There were many justifications for simply concluding that the investigation was never going to hold anyone to account and that the truth would simply be buried there – as happened after the very assassinations and bombings. publicized.
The desperate attempts to hinder the investigation have become a microcosm of Lebanon’s deep fractures and seemingly endless woes.
Hafed Al Ghwell
Judge Bitar, however, remained steadfast and unmoved in the face of a Lebanese political class which is desperately closing ranks and clinging to demands for constitutional immunity. The escalation of threats only served to assure the beleaguered judge that he was on the right track.
More than 75 percent of the case is now over, and investigators are actively seeking answers as to what could have triggered the explosion and are looking for hidden links between the parties responsible for unloading the cargo in Lebanon. These many advances amid relentless obstructions have helped reassure the families of the victims that Judge Bitar is the best person to carry out the investigation.
However, uncovering the participants and the obscure front companies responsible for shipping fertilizer comes with serious risks, especially when these truths involve some Lebanese politicians and security officials. These risks are not unknown to an unperturbed Bitar judge or the Lebanese general public. Wafiq Safa, the elusive head of one of Hezbollah’s internal security agencies, reportedly delivered a threat letter to Bitar warning him that he would be forcibly removed if the obstruction by Lebanese authorities did not derail him. investigation of the judge.
Even the rare speeches by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah targeted Bitar, signaling the quasi-state’s intention to distract from its links to the explosion itself or to affiliated politicians involved in the investigation, such as the former Minister of Public Works, Youssef Fenianos. He joins a group of senior government and security officials suspected of negligence, including former interior minister Nohad Machnouk and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Others are likely to be trapped in Judge Bitar’s investigation, as many officials in parliament, government and security agencies were aware of the improperly stored fertilizer and were even warned of its dangers. potentials.
This “war” against Judge Bitar and the desperate attempts to obstruct the investigation have become a microcosm of Lebanon’s deep rifts and seemingly endless woes. It is now experiencing the worst economic crisis since the 1850s, further strangled by the cycle of corruption enshrined in its denominational political governance system.
Even the return of an appropriate government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati has inspired nothing but contemptuous comments, laughter and exasperation, since the leadership is the product of a failed system.
Besides internal threats, Lebanon has also become the scene of many regional proxy struggles, encouraging elements like Tehran-backed Hezbollah, which acts like a kingmaker, while its American or French-backed opponents seek to capitalize on the urgency of reversing the situation in Lebanon. imminent collapse. So far, Hezbollah is winning the war of influence, with the arrangement of fuel imports from Iran. However, analysts agree that such a deal will not meet Lebanon’s fuel needs and that it is not likely to last forever despite Hezbollah’s claims.
It is in this conflagration that the Beirut investigation falters, renewing hope that, even in the worst of times, the search for truth and accountability will not falter. For most Lebanese exhausted by a myriad of crises, Judge Bitar’s investigation may be the last chance to shake up an irresponsible political class determined to extend its grip on power. Further politicization of the investigation and the prospect of Bitar’s sacking risk further fueling the outrage of a public forced to witness the slow dismantling of their once cherished Lebanese state.
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