Once again, Lebanon teeters on the abyss of a civil war, this time over conflicts related to the investigation into the disastrous August 4, 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut. As supporters of the powerful Shia Hezbollah and Amal Movement gathered around the Palace of Justice to protest the proceedings of an investigation into the explosion, gunmen on area rooftops attacked them, killing at least six and wounding scores of others. Hezbollah and Amal fighters quickly produced their own caches of weapons and commenced to fire back in scenes reminiscent of the street battles Beirut witnessed over fifteen years of civil war between 1975 and 1990.
Hezbollah laid the blame for the attack on the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Maronite Christian party led by former warlord Samir Geagea and claiming the mantle of defending the Lebanese state from the excesses of the Party of God that has become a state-within-the-state and has much influence over the country’s politics. To be sure, as an equally sectarian party, Lebanese Forces has much to gain from confronting what many in Lebanon call Shia overreach. LF is also in a serious competition with President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) for support among Christians in the country. Aoun and FPM are blamed for giving Hezbollah political and Maronite cover since Aoun signed a political agreement for coordination (the so-called Mar Mikhael Understanding) with the party’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in 2006.
The current iteration of violence comes after the judge investigating the explosion, Tarek Bitar, issued summons to two former ministers and current members of parliament, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zaiter, both Shia Muslims and members of Amal. He also summoned former Prime Minister Hassan Diab (Sunni Muslim), parliamentarian and former minister Nohad al-Machnouq (Sunni Muslim), and former minister Yousef Finyanus (Maronite Christian), all three of whom refused to appear before him. All those rejecting Bitar’s summons, and others, were in position to know about the origin and ownership of the thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored at the port and part of which exploded last year, causing the death of over 200 civilians, injury to thousands, and homelessness to hundreds of thousands.
All of the defendants alleged that Bitar is politicizing the investigation and want him removed. Machnouq and Finyanus sued to remove Bitar because of his alleged “abnormal behavior” and “double standards.” Hezbollah’s security chief Wafik Safa sent a verbal message to Bitar with a journalist that “We will go along with you until the end of the legal road but if it doesn’t work we will remove you.” The Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, a few days ago accused Bitar of being biased and demanded that he be replaced. That courts on many occasions have rejected appeals by the accused to force Bitar to recuse himself from the case is testament that the judiciary insists on its independence despite possible retaliation from the party or others trying to escape accountability.
While the investigation into the Beirut explosion will remain a serious point of contention between the investigating judge and those responsible for the disaster, there also is a broader, indeed regional, factor that influences Hezbollah’s behavior in this instance. Last Sunday’s election results in Iraq showed a serious decline in the popularity of Hezbollah-like, pro-Iran militias and political factions in that country despite the raw military threat and power they can wield. Hezbollah and Amal may be worried that their protection of the political class that has helped to precipitate Lebanon’s political and socioeconomic troubles will reflect badly on them among their Shia constituency in next spring’s parliamentary elections.
Appearing resolute in defending Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zaiter is the least Hezbollah and Amal can do to show their supporters that they truly are protecting their confessional interests in a sectarian political system. But their gamble may only attract equally zealous figures from other sectarian groups, many of which have clashed with the Shia duo over the years. Developments in Beirut could very well precipitate the ugly prospects of a civil war that, considering Lebanon’s dire conditions today, will be more devastating and negatively consequential than ever before.