Lebanon’s rocky road to accountability


In downtown Beirut, empty buildings are covered with representations of more than 200 faces. These are the faces of the lives lost on August 4, 2020, when a neglected stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut ripped through metal and flesh, taking over 200 livesleaving more 6000 people injured and more than 300,000 homeless people. The explosion would have been even worse had it not been for the huge grain silos towering over the point of the explosion. More than a year and a half after the explosion, the interference of the Lebanese political class has ensured that no one responsible has been convicted.

Lebanon has been plagued by a series of problems since its economic crisis began in August 2019. Since then, the local currency, once pegged to the dollar, has lost 90% of its value. Lebanon once boasted a healthy middle class, but today 75% of its population has fallen into poverty. Power cuts have been a constant since the Civil War but increased in frequency and duration. A revolution that aimed to overthrow the political class began in October 2019 but was largely derailed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Then the explosion came.

When citizens demand justice for the 2020 Beirut explosion, their political representatives have responded only with threats of civil war or multiple lawsuits against the lead investigator of the investigation.

For many, the explosion was a manifestation of years of neglect by the Lebanese government and former warlords who still pull the country’s political and economic strings. Traditionally, the political class is made up of two blocs; one pro-Western and Saudi and the other pro-Syrian and Iranian. But when they are threatened, as was the case during the October Revolution 2019 Where 2016 elections in Beirut, these two blocks unite to keep their grip on the country and its resources. The political establishment relies, at least in part, on its stranglehold on state ministries and resources to enrich itself and constrain domestic support. If either bloc fell from power, the other would lose its scapegoat and thus its veil of legitimacy to govern.

Public anger and frustration manifest themselves in many ways today, including subversive graffiti that decorates the capital and giving ministers daring to venture outside for a public dinner a slap in the face. The strong diaspora of 10 to 15 million people that has long fueled the Lebanese economy is also register to vote in record numbers, and a series of new actors and political parties have emerged from the country’s civil society. Parliamentary elections, it seems, are the path on which many are pinning their hopes.

THE ELECTION PROMISE IN LEBANON

Elections are scheduled for mid-May 2022. While 45% of voters who participated in the 2018 elections said they would vote for new parties, but according to polls speak Konrad Adenauer Stiftung only half of the Lebanese population plans to vote.

Although few of them are inspired by the traditional parties, there is also mass skepticism that any of the new figures or parties can muster adequate support to win enough seats to influence parliament. Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who took over as Lebanon’s most important and powerful Sunni Muslim politician after the assassination of his father in 2005, suspended his involvement in Lebanese politics. Hariri’s decision was initially met with enthusiasm from civil society who hoped to fill the void. But the current electoral law has complicated things. While the new law is based on proportional representation, which requires candidates to run on lists that meet sectarian quotas, it is the traditional political parties that have an advantage. For example, established political parties will more easily fill these lists compared to upstart reformist candidates who may not be able to fill their lists with enough popular candidates who also meet the sectarian quota. This left political scientists predicting that candidates aligned with Hariri’s political opponent, Hezbollah, will benefit the most of Hariri’s absence.

There are also doubts about the holding of the elections, despite assurances from various political figures. The parliament elects the president in Lebanon. President Michel Aoun’s term ends later this year and he would like to see his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, follow in his footsteps. The problem is Bassil, who was subject to US sanctions last year on allegations of bribery and corruption worth billions of dollars, is probably the country’s most unpopular politician among citizens and widely hated by traditional allies in his own party, the Hezbollah and Amal.

The United States and the EU join Lebanese citizens in viewing the elections as a critical step toward reforming the country’s corrupt political infrastructure. Do not go ahead with the elections could result in penalties, although fear of sanctions has not derailed the stubbornness of Lebanese political leaders in the past. While Lebanese citizens are suffering, the political class has been deeply enriched over the past 30 years. Months after the blast rocked Beirut, Aoun still didn’t feel the need to meet the families of the victims. Since then, the only efforts of the political class related to the explosion have been to disrupt any attempt to seek accountability or justice. When citizens demand justice, their political representatives have responded only by civil war threats Where several lawsuits against the lead investigator of the probe.

THE SAME OLD LUGGAGE

Lebanon’s misfortunes are not new. The country has been the scene of more than a dozen assassinations since 2004. The targets were politicians, journalists, security officials and intellectuals who opposed the Syrian occupation which ended shortly after Hariri’s assassination in 2005 or those who criticized the Iranian-backed regime. Hezbollah party and militia. The country has felt the brunt of the loss of numbers as Samir Kassira writer and thinker who documented the history of Beirut and the struggles of the Arab people in a struggle for political liberation, and slim lokman, activist and publisher murdered six months to the day after the explosion. To date, none of the killers have been brought to justice.

Faced with this heavy history, few Lebanese expected the state to deliver justice this time either. An investigator was fired just over six months after the explosion. He was accused of political bias as his house was damaged in the blast. His replacement was a young, politically independent judge named Tarek Bitar.

Bitar got to work, boldly calling numerous high-ranking politicians for questioning, then charging them with criminal negligence when they failed to show up. Although Bitar called politicians from both political blocs, he was also accused by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah of being politically influenced. In October 2022, armed supporters of Hezbollah and their ally Amal marched through Beirut’s Tayouneh neighborhood to call for the removal of Bitar from the blast wallet. The location was symbolic as it was once the front line of the civil war that separated East from West Beirut. the march led to clashes leaving seven deadincluding civilians, and more than 30 people injured in the worst violence seen in Beirut since 2008.

Bitar still continues to be the lead investigator. His work won him many admirers in the country, including many family members of the victims. But his work has been repeatedly forced to a halt due to – often frivolous – lawsuits by the politicians he has called for questioning.

ALWAYS IN SEARCH OF RESPONSIBILITY

As more than 19 months have passed, the families of the dead are still demanding justice. Their latest battle has been with the Ministry of Economy to try to ensure the grain silos remain standing as a monument to the explosion. Once again, the government seeks to erase the memory of the harm it has inflicted on Lebanese citizens.

Many buildings near the port have been rebuilt. Back downtown, depictions of the martyrs’ faces hang on concrete walls whose empty interiors are indicative of the ongoing financial crisis. The haunting imagery is there so that their memory cannot be erased or paved over. But when night falls, the portraits – like so many citizens suffering from various shortages that the state fails to provide – are also plunged into darkness.

Justin Salhani is a Paris-based writer, journalist and producer interested in Lebanese identity, migration, society and politics, cosmopolitanism and the anthropology of football, among other things that do not fit into a short biography. He was previously based in Beirut, Washington, DC and Milan.

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