Hezbollah and its political allies have intensified Lebanon’s political crisis and paralysed the new government by trying to push the cabinet to dismiss Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of investigating the 2020 Beirut blast.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Lebanese government is already in a fragile state – even though it was only formed on September 10. Many hoped that the new administration would launch reforms to get Lebanon out of a political and economic crisis after a thirteen-month political vacuum. But instead the cabinet has found itself paralysed by tensions around the investigation into the cataclysmic August 2020 Beirut port explosion.
These tensions contributed to the deadly shootings in Beirut on October 14 at a demonstration organised by Hezbollah and its ally the Amal movement. The protesters were demanding the removal of the judge in charge of the investigation into the Beirut blast, Tarek Bitar, amid political pressure and a smear campaign pushing for his dismissal.
The same day that the situation got out of hand on the streets of Beirut – in scenes reminiscent of bloody moments during the 1975-90 Lebanese Civil War – the country’s highest court rejected complaints against Bitar brought by several ex-ministers, allowing him to resume the inquiry.
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“Everything is clear from a legal point of view, because several court rulings over recent weeks ensured that Bitar is still doing his job,” noted Antoine Sfeir, a law professor at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut and a practising lawyer in both Beirut and Paris. But from a “political vantage point”, Sfeir continued, the pressure against Bitar has become “explosive” for the Lebanese government.
Indeed, days before this month’s bloodshed in Beirut, the Shia political alliance extended its campaign against Bitar to the cabinet – pushing for the judge’s removal in a meeting on October 12.
Hezbollah threat against judge
The meeting had to be adjourned due to the heated debate that followed. It was postponed until the next day, then delayed again amid rumours of Shia ministers threatening blackmail if the cabinet did not take a stand on Bitar’s dismissal.
Signalling the mounting unease within the government, even Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (CPL) the biggest Christian party in parliament and a political ally of Hezbollah, felt compelled to give Bitar his implicit support: “The CPL wants the investigation to continue – to bring the truth to light and those responsible to justice,” he said.
Lebanon’s Justice Minister Henry Khoury added his support on Saturday, saying that the judge had the right to summon anyone he wanted. Khoury also underlined that he lacks the legal right to replace Bitar.
This comes after the pressure on the judge amplified when a senior Hezbollah official threatened him in September. Lebanese media reported that Wafic Safa, the head of Hezbollah’s security apparatus, sent a threat to Bitar via a journalist who remains anonymous: “We have had enough of you; we will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will remove you by force.”
The Shia military-political organisation seems obsessed with Bitar’s investigation – at the same time as rumours have proliferated in Lebanon that Hezbollah was involved in storing the tons of ammonium nitrate behind the August 2020 blast.
“Judge Bitar’s investigation seems to have made some people panic,” Antonella Hitti, the sister of a victim of the Beirut explosion, said last month. “The threats against him make it clear that he’s doing a good job and that his probe is pointing in the right direction – namely, people who are so scared they’re ready to do anything to remove him from his job.”
Hezbollah boss Hassan Nasrallah added to the pressure on Bitar in an October 11 televised address, accusing the judge of having political targets and “not wanting to reveal the truth”.
‘People desperately want justice’
Caught between pressure from Hezbollah and allies in the political class, on the one hand, and mass popular support for Bitar on the other, Mikati said that he will not convene another cabinet meeting until he has “found a solution” to the intensifying political crisis surrounding Bitar’s probe.
At the same time, the prime minister said he will not get rid of Bitar and refused to take a stand against Lebanon’s justice system, which has so far ruled in the judge’s favour. “I’m not going to interfere in their work [and] I’m not going to interfere in Bitar’s work,” Mikati told Lebanese news website Al-Modon.
“Support for Bitar from the PM and other senior officials can be attributed to the popular pressure from a Lebanese people who desperately want justice,” said Mona Fawaz, a professor at the American University of Beirut and a member of Beirut Madinati, a civil society group active in the October 2019 protest movement against Lebanon’s entrenched political class.
“The Lebanese people have lost their faith in most of the country’s institutions, which have been captured by the same corrupt political class for three decades,” Fawaz went on. “What we’re seeing today is an attempt to undermine the judiciary’s independence in inquiring into the origins of the August 2020 explosion – a disaster that many of us think was caused by the political elite’s negligence.”
The pressure on Bitar and the growing political crisis – which crescendoed with the spilling of blood in Beirut last week – have been “orchestrated” by certain political parties to send a message to the Lebanese people, Fawaz continued: “If you ask for justice, you’ll get another civil war.”
The political tug-of-war over Bitar’s probe has produced violence on the streets at the very moment when everything must be done to keep the government in power, Sfeir added – because if the new administration falls, “that would bury the last remaining hope for an economic rebound”.
“It proves just how acute Lebanon’s political crisis is – when the slightest disagreement around a legal, security or economic issue threatens to bring down the government,” Sfeir concluded.