It all began as a protest by supporters wearing the black of the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah and Amal Movements, whose leaders were calling for the removal of judge Tarek Bitar from the investigation into the Beirut Port blasts in August 2020.
Nobody knows how the protest turned into a kind of mini civil war as gunfire echoed around a district of Beirut for a few hours. There were ambulances everywhere, children crying in schools, and bullets penetrating apartment windows in the Tayoune district, which is far from where the protesters were expressing themselves.
The victims were the Lebanese people, who still have no idea why the shooting happened. At least six people were killed and more than 20 others were wounded by the gunfire.
In a joint press release Hizbullah and its ally Amal accused the Christian Lebanese Forces Party of being behind the shooting. The Lebanese army will have the answer, hopefully in the near future, but only if it is willing to divulge it.
Pro-Hizbullah journalist Ali Hijazi told Al-Ahram Weekly that the shooting had been a result of Bitar’s behaviour. “Lebanese law does not consider what a judge says as sacred, which is why some in Lebanon feel that Bitar is targeting them by trying to politicise the crime. The political class behind the protest want to replace this controversial investigator,” he said.
Twice this month the Lebanese judiciary has ruled in favour of Bitar, saying that it does not have the authority to consider requests for his dismissal. This has made problems bigger between Bitar and former Lebanese government ministers he has summoned to appear before the investigation on suspicion of criminal negligence. It has been reported from Beirut that Lebanon’s Supreme Judicial Council will hear Bitar on Thursday.
This has pushed some supporters of parties backing the ministers to demonstrate against the judge, turning into an armed conflict, Hijazi said, adding that in his view the Lebanese Forces Party plans “to create a civil war.”
The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shia group Hizbullah said on Monday that Thursday’s Beirut violence was dangerous. “The biggest threat to the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces Party and its head,” he said, revealing that Hizbullah has some 100,000 fighters who are “ready to defend their country.”
Lebanese Forces media representative Charles Jabbour refuted such statements, saying that those under attack had simply tried to defend themselves. The attacks on people’s houses by Hizbullah and Amal supporters had been recorded on video, he said, adding that the demonstration, armed with guns, had followed a clear political campaign against anyone supporting the victims of the port blasts or Bitar’s investigation.
Hizbullah leader Wafic Safa has also threatened Bitar.
However, William Noun, a brother of a victim in the port explosions, told the Weekly that the work of the judge was “professional,” while politicians were trying to create obstacles to his investigation in the hope that he would abandon it.
Some Lebanese MPs also say that the investigation has become politicised. One MP affiliated to the Lebanese Forces, George Okais, said that “discussions after the gunfight in Beirut are no longer related to legal affairs. The Hizbullah and Amal Movements have shifted them to politics to enhance the tensions between groups.”
Days before the fighting started, some in the pro-Hizbullah media were putting pressure on the judge to withdraw from the investigation. MP from the Future Movement Mustafa Allouch told the Weekly that Hizbullah wants to close down the investigation.
“Public opinion about an international investigation will become more politically divided if it takes the place of the local investigation. If this becomes an international investigation, then the political divisions will occur sooner, but the results of the investigation by the Lebanese judge will be the same as those of an international judge,” he said.
Fears of further violence are spreading. Chady Saraya, a political activist, predicts further armed conflict as Hizbullah is willing to use its power to get what it wants, he said, considering itself to be “above the law.”
For Hizbullah, in Saraya’s words, “the legal process, the law and the constitution are not essential. All that matters for them is an Iranian system, since otherwise they would follow the law by accepting the judge’s recommendations.”
According to legal expert Rony Abdel-Kerim, this is not the first time a Lebanese judge has had problems accessing protected high officials. In his opinion, the Lebanese political class, acting through the council of ministers, has politicised the legal process and is responsible for the attempts to remove Bitar.
What happened in the street-fighting bore witness to the power of Hizbullah, which “is taking control over Lebanon through its fighters”.
MPs from the Free Patriotic Movement, Christian allies of Hizbullah, want to see freedom of speech protected. MP Hagop Terzian emphasised the clauses in the Lebanese Constitution that protect freedom of speech, saying that for him what is taking place is related to the independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial.
He said he was surprised that such speech had given way to street fighting. His colleague, George Atallah, from the same political bloc, told the Weekly that it was backing the investigation “until the end” and that “the investigation is still continuing.”
For Atallah, there has been an ongoing blurring of the boundaries between the judiciary and executive in Lebanon, since some high-level officials, MPs and ministers are not only refusing to have their immunity lifted, but have also pressured MPs to take over the port explosions investigation and interrogate those accused of negligence themselves.
Commentators on Lebanese politics, among them Tony Habib, manager of LCRS Politica, the Lebanese Centre for Research and Studies think tank, said the investigation by Bitar has been targeted because the accusations point to Hizbullah.
If Hizbullah and Amal do not succeed in replacing the judge in the investigation, he said, the government will not be able to solve the country’s economic and social problems, also threatening the holding of new elections.
All this means that in the wake of last week’s violence, Lebanon may once again be heading into the unknown.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly