Lebanon has been without government since the massive explosion of August 4, 2020 that blew up Port Beirut and, with it, the administrative machine of Lebanon. In the aftermath of the explosion, President Michel Aoun promised a quick and transparent investigation. A year later, no one has been held responsible, as the investigation itself has been subject to continued obstructions, escapes and delays.
Judge Fadi Sawan has been appointed to lead the investigation. On December 10, he formally indicted Acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers with negligence in connection with the explosion. But Diab, who had been backed by the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc in his bid to become the prime minister-designate, refused to appear for questioning. As were two of the other former ministers. They were backed by Acting Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi, described by the Abu Dhabi-based agency The National as “resolutely pro-Hezbollah”. Fahmi has publicly stated that even if the judiciary issues arrest warrants, he will not ask the security forces to detain them.
President Aoun, a staunch supporter of Hezbollah – who reciprocates – made no comment at the time, but in February Judge Fadi Sawan was removed from the investigation.
He was replaced by Judge Tarek Bitar, known to have no strong political affiliation. On July 9, 2021, Judge Bitar asked to question Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the powerful General Security Agency. Fahmi refused the request.
It seems clear that the interim government is deliberately foiling the investigation, and suspicion must arise that prominent figures were involved in the circumstances leading up to the explosion and are being protected. Indeed, in a report released on August 3, Human Rights Watch states, “The very design of the port’s management structure was developed to share power among the political elites. This has maximized opacity and allowed corruption and mismanagement to flourish. “
Among the questions awaiting response include who authorized the detention of the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship, the Rhosus, in November 2013; under whose authority its shipment of 2,754 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – which no party subsequently claimed – was unloaded and stored under dangerous conditions on 23 and 24 October; and what happened to some 2,200 tons of this cargo, since – according to an FBI report – the explosion, massive though it was, only involved around 550 tons.
Amnesty International criticized the Lebanese judicial process from the outset. “Every step, measure or statement taken so far,” he said in September 2020, “especially by the country’s top officials, has made it clear that the authorities have no intention of s ‘discharge their responsibilities to conduct an effective, transparent and impartial investigation … An international fact-finding mechanism is the only way to guarantee victims’ rights to truth, justice and remedies.
Human Rights Watch agreed with this view. Given the undue influence exerted by Hezbollah, “the state within the state”, as well as the widespread corruption and venality within ruling circles, HRW believes that Lebanon’s internal investigation is unable to do justice credibly, and called for an international, independent probe. He believes that the explosion – which killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and inflicted billions of dollars in damage – was the most vivid example to date of the chronic corruption and mismanagement that left Lebanese a dysfunctional state and a collapsing economy.
In October 2020, Saad Hariri was appointed by the Lebanese parliament as prime minister designate and responsible for forming a new government. For nine long months, he was at loggerheads with President Aoun, who wanted to pack any new government with ministers backing Hezbollah. Hariri categorically refused to give in. He wanted to build a technocratic cabinet dedicated to implementing the reforms long demanded by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and donor countries such as the United States and France. Finally, on July 15, Hariri resigned.
Shortly thereafter, a compromise candidate for prime minister designate emerged in the form of one of Lebanon’s richest men, Najib Mikati. Mikati, who has served as prime minister twice in the past, found himself supported by most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah and the other major Shiite party, Amal, as well as by former Sunni prime ministers, including Hariri . Nonetheless, critics have called Mikati a “puppet of Hezbollah”, while again opposing a prime minister from what they call “the corrupt political elite”. International media have cited corruption charges brought against Mikati by a judge in 2019, in a case involving charges of illicit earnings linked to subsidized home loans – charges he describes as politically motivated. The case has not yet been tried.
On July 28, Mikati announced that he had submitted his list of candidates for government office to the president. “President Aoun has approved most of them,” he announced, “and he made some remarks that are acceptable. God willing… soon we can form a government. In light of the Hariri-Aoun impasse, few assumptions are needed about the general shape of the future Mikati cabinet.
Doubts must persist as to its ability, let alone the will, to undertake the fundamental reforms essential to restoring Lebanon’s economic health. The World Bank does not hesitate to criticize the Lebanese political elite in which Hezbollah figures so strongly. He accuses them of not deliberately addressing the country’s many problems, including the economic and financial crisis, the Covid pandemic and the explosion in the port of Beirut. In a recent report, he identifies inaction as being due to a persistent political consensus that defends “a failed economic system, which has benefited a few for so long”.
Given the likely makeup of the new administration, it does not seem likely that Lebanon will break free anytime soon from the dominance that Hezbollah has managed to acquire in the country’s political life, and the resulting malicious influence over it. Lebanese affairs that Iran is able to exercise through its puppet. For example, Hezbollah has full military control over southern Lebanon and, if not directly responsible, must at least have acquiesced in rocket attacks by terrorist groups on northern Israel on August 4 – an action coinciding with the Iranian aggression off the Gulf of Hormuz and the accession of the new hard-core Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi. It is no wonder that some commentators, like the prestigious British political institute Chatham House, come to regard Lebanon as a state controlled by Hezbollah.