Gunning down of Hezbollah supporters dims prospects for justice in Lebanon

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


Lebanon’s fragile peace has become more fraught since the shooting of pro-Hezbollah protesters by armed assailants. The situation around Beirut and other major cities was already tense, due to a worsening economic and security crisis. Just last week, Beirut endured 24 hours without electricity, an omen of worse to come, triggering fears of a complete economic collapse. Against this background, the country’s judiciary has been attempting to identify individuals responsible for last year’s blast, which destroyed the harbor in Beirut. However, the influential Shia militias Hezbollah and Amal have accused judge Tarek Bitar of bias and took to the streets last week to demand his resignation.

The Turkish Daily Sabah reports that, immediately following the news of the violence, the Lebanese security forces sought to arrest the responsible parties, detaining “nine people, including a Syrian national… .In a statement on Twitter, the army said it had bolstered its forces in the areas that witnessed clashes after the unknown gunmen opened fire on demonstrating members of the Hezbollah group and Amal Movement, deploying patrols to avert further violence, according to Anadolu Agency (AA)…. Commenting on the violence, Hezbollah and Amal released a joint statement accusing an ‘armed group’ affiliated with the Lebanese Forces party, led by Samir Geagea, of being behind the attack.”

While the identity and motivations of the gunmen will eventually be revealed, there is no doubt in the minds of many about the real culprit. Reacting to last week’s violence, Baria Alamuddin, writing for Arab News, warns that the unwillingness of the sectarian and political groups to put Lebanon’s interests ahead of theirs “will only destroy it…. The scenario that so many of us have been warning about for the past two years is now upon us: We are on the cusp of annihilation and nothing short of a miracle will prevent all-out slaughter…. The problem is that none of the protagonists cares enough about Lebanon to call a halt…. Lebanon is in its essence a pluralist state. No party can hope to gain power unless it is willing to share power. A decade of renewed war will not change this reality one iota. Regrettably, none of these warring factions possesses the wisdom and foresight to comprehend that, if they continue their current trajectory, the state they seek to monopolize will be no more than a heap of smoking ash.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Hazem Saghieh argues that Lebanon’s instability is driven mainly by the surfeit of sectarian-based militias, which inevitably led to a vicious circle of violence and a security dilemma: “The background story starts with the Taif Agreement that was implemented under Syrian patronage. Hezbollah’s arsenal was thus deemed legitimate, while the other armed groups were handing theirs in. The Second Republic was born with this disequilibrium and discrimination. Matters became worse after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2000. The arsenal, for which the Shebaa Farms were conjured up, remained in its owners’ hands…. The parliamentary majority is barred from governing. The government collapses, through the withdrawal of its Shiite members, whenever it expresses the slightest opposition to that arsenal. It loses the sectarian representation it needs for its legitimacy.”

It is also not lost on many that the worsening violence may just be symptomatic of a failing economy. That is, in part, what Rita Boulos Chahwan suggests in this Al Ahram op-ed:: “Rolling power cuts that have plunged much of Lebanon into darkness are the latest episode in the country’s ongoing economic crisis…. With electricity now either intermittent or non-existent, people are asking how essential services can continue to run, including the country’s hospitals…. The effects of the electricity crisis will affect tourism …, as restaurants will not be able to safely preserve food or even to serve meals. Tourism… has been low this year, and not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic…. This could lead to further stress on an already collapsing financial system, leading to the failure of some Lebanese banks.”

Characterizing Lebanon as a country “on the edge” and “dysfunctional,” Times of Israel blogger Sheldon Kirshner points out that, since last year’s explosion, the situation has only worsened, despite the political musical chairs playing out in Beirut: “With its currency having lost more than 90 percent of its value in the past two years and still in free fall, Lebanon is coping with a perfect storm of misery as defined by mass unemployment, prolonged power outages, and shocking shortages of food and basic necessities…. Since the explosion on August 4, 2020, Lebanon has spun into further disarray. Hassan Diab, the prime minister, resigned after the blast, leaving this fragile nation without a stable government for about a year. This past September, Najib Mikati, a wealthy businessman with close ties to Hezbollah who was previously prime minister, succeeded Diab after managing to cobble together a government of technocrats. However, Mikati has failed to bring a real measure of stability to Lebanon as tensions over the explosion have simmered and escalated.”

A recent Albawaba report sees the dire economic circumstances in the country further polarizing Lebanese society while driving out a large percentage of its population, “seeking immigration to western countries in the hope of a better future. Yet, the growing political polarization has been described as ‘the most intense since the 15-year-long civil war’, leading to violent clashes in Beirut last Thursday that lasted for several hours and resulted in at least 7 deaths…. As Lebanese people watched Thursday’s bloody events in horror, social media users remembered scenes from the civil war and expressed their fear that the collapsing country might experience a new one soon. Moreover, social media users are now tweeting using the [Arabic hashtag for the Oct 17 revolution] in memory of the protests, saying they [hope] they can continue the call for an end to political corruption so Lebanon can survive the current tensions and start building a better future.”

Few hold out hope that the deeply divided Lebanese society and its sectarian-based political system have what it takes to emerge out of the current crisis on their own. This lies behind Raghida Dergham’s call for help on the pages of The National, aimed at the international community: “The current crisis in Lebanon is one involving the purportedly independent judiciary on the one side and the political class that considers itself above the law on the other. An internal matter or not, however, the international community must throw its support behind the judiciary. For this branch of the government is in grave danger, and its officials need international backing and protection…. Failing to do so will give Hezbollah – with support from Tehran – and Amal the space to do what they can to foil the investigation. The fate of the court case could prove consequential for Lebanese politics and the stakes Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran will continue to have in it.”

Given last week’s violence, it now appears that Hezbollah has a perfect cover for demanding an end to the investigation or at least diverting attention away from itself.  The more worrying question now is whether Hezbollah will refrain from taking retaliatory actions and thus plunging the country into what most likely will become a civil war. Tehran Times’ Abir Bassam is among those who think Hezbollah has no option but to respond in kind, lest its restraint send the wrong message. The targeting of the protesters was “not a random act. It [was] a deliberate deed and a message to Hezbollah: you and your allies have no say in investigating the crime of the Harbor bombing in August 2020. As we have written before, the crime of the Harbor goals was matchable to the goals of the al-Hariri assassination in February 2005.  And what happened in Tayouneh is actually a chain reaction related to the Harbor crime, just like the successive assassinations that followed the greatest one, of al-Hariri. The only difference here:  political leaders were targeted then, and now it is the people who are targeted.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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