The shocking thing about the latest legal maneuverings in Lebanon is how blatant they were in their illegality and partisanship; no one any longer even hides their attempts to subvert the rule of law.
Following the post-2019 collapse of political and financial institutions, Lebanon’s judiciary remained as a pillar that appeared to be a glimmer of hope. This had already suffered a mortal blow with the Rafik Hariri tribunal, when it became obvious that a particular demographic considered itself to enjoy total legal immunity. Hezbollah demonstrated that it was willing to smash Lebanon over our heads at the mere threat of the arrest of one of its most lowly officials.
In recent days Lebanon’s judiciary has become an object of ridicule, as judges leveled retaliatory charges against each other and arbitrarily ordered the releases of detainees. The stuttering investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion had already demonstrated that the judiciary was a plaything in the hands of powerful figures, who could gleefully toss spanners into the legal works to hamstring procedures indefinitely.
Many citizens perceive investigating judge Tarek Bitar’s actions against powerful officials as heroic. One widow who lost her husband in the blast said: “This is really bold and courageous … you feel like he’s on a solo mission.”
Bitar is disconcerting for the corrupt ruling classes because he doesn’t follow their rules. He declines invitations to social occasions to avoid perceptions of influence, and doesn’t accept calls from those seeking favors. He now lives under armed guard. People speculate about when he’ll be assassinated.
The apocalyptic port blast on Aug. 4, 2020, killed at least 218 people and injured about 7,000, destroyed 77,000 homes, caused $15 billion of damage, displaced over 300,000, and left at least 80,000 children homeless. The known facts indicate criminal failings through the entire rotten system, up to the president and the prime minister’s office. President Michel Aoun was shown to have been aware that a quantity of volatile ammonium nitrate sufficient to destroy half the capital was mouldering away in a warehouse, but didn’t lift a finger to ensure that action was taken to monitor it and keep it safe.
Aoun and the political classes demonstrated scant sympathy for the blast victims, who were left to fend for themselves. However, these politicians have gone to immense efforts to protect their own backs, shamefully bickering with each other while the country burns. Their obstructionism includes filing more than 25 requests to dismiss judges leading the investigation, and Hezbollah blocking Cabinet sessions for months seeking to quash the probe. The Interior Ministry failed to execute Bitar’s arrest warrants. Chief prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat reacted to finding himself on Bitar’s summons sheet by filing retaliatory charges against Bitar. Sizable demonstrations have called for Oueidat’s resignation.
Reformist MPs visited the office of caretaker Justice Minister Henri Khoury to discuss the port probe, only for these public representatives to be beaten up by unidentified thugs in the minister’s presence. One MP said: “These aren’t guards, these are the dogs of the justice minister. We were talking about the law in a civilized way.”
Amid these exacerbated tensions, the soldiers and tanks massed around the Beirut districts of Ain El-Remmaneh and Chiyah are horribly reminiscent of the outbreak of the 1975 civil war.
Compelling evidence indicates that the shipload of chemicals was deliberately diverted to Lebanon and influence was exerted to impound it in port facilities under the control of Hezbollah. The explosion could have been several times worse, because about 80 percent of the 2,754 tons of ammonium nitrate had already been stolen by the time of the explosion.
There is little doubt about which Lebanese entity would want to control and use such vast quantities of explosive chemicals. Significant quantities are thought to have been diverted to the Syrian arena for use in crude bombs to indiscriminately kill and maim civilians. This investigation has never been just about negligence, but mass murder. No wonder Lebanon’s entire senior echelon has unified ranks against it.
Tensions are escalating as conspiracy theories proliferate via media organs on various sides. “Tarek Bitar has gone mad,” ran the headline of the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar, which accused him of acting on “American orders, with European judicial support.” MP Ghazi Zoaiter, after being summoned for interrogation, called Bitar “mentally ill.”
Many commentators take it for granted that the blast was a deliberate Israeli strike against Hezbollah assets, and thus conclude that Israel and the Americans are of one mind with Hezbollah in seeking to kill the investigation. There is intense media speculation about the failure of Western states to provide satellite imagery showing the moment of the explosion.
I have always been tremendously proud to be part of the Lebanese success story of globe-straddling achievement. Everywhere I went, people would joyfully relate their experiences of visiting Lebanon and expound on what a gorgeous, vibrant country it was. In recent years, my reaction has turned to mortification as people expressed their condolences at the country’s “tragic death.” My response has always been to brush this aside and express my expectation that Lebanon would soon be back on its feet again — but it has become increasingly impossible to put a brave face on things. The collapsing education sector will have long-term consequences for restoring Lebanon’s reputation as a center of entrepreneurship, talent and innovation.
There was a Lebanon before, and a vastly diminished Lebanon after the 2020 explosion, which reduced one of Beirut’s most beautiful sightseeing and shopping districts to a bomb site. The blast symbolized everything that is wrong with Lebanon — the corruption, misgovernance, impunity and pre-eminence of terrorist groups.
It should therefore also be a symbol for our unfinished revolution against these evils. By filing charges against senior officials, Bitar is not an out-of-control judge; rather he is signaling that the entire complicit, corrupt leadership deserves to be brought to account. Instead of cynically waiting for him to fail, Lebanon’s citizens should take to the streets en masse and demand that this revolution is followed through to its logical conclusion.