Political and Civilian Perspectives of the Beirut Blast Investigation

  • 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.

Jess Diez,
Director of Educational Programs & Managing Editor

January 31, 2023

On January 23, Judge Tarek Bitar recommenced the 2020 Beirut port blast investigation after a 13-month hiatus; shortly after, he charged eight people with homicide, arson and sabotage. In total, 13 figures are being prosecuted, including former prime minister Hassan Diab and Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat, alongside various judges and other former ministers. This resurgence of activity has invoked a new round of infighting amid the investigation, and the responses of political and civilian parties are greatly varied.

The investigation took a pause in December of 2021 after months of internal discourse among the political elite. According to i24NEWS, the investigation was stalled “due to the politicians that Bitar summoned for questioning filing complaints against him…Bitar has sought to question multiple senior politicians, including members of Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, Hassan Diab – prime minister at the time of the blast – and top security official Major-General Abbas Ibrahim. All of them have denied wrongdoing and said that the judge does not have the power to interrogate them, arguing they have immunity.”

Arab News exposed Lebanese politicians’ minute concern for the blast victims, which was quickly superseded with self-interest:The political classes demonstrated scant sympathy for the blast victims, who were left to fend for themselves.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.”

While the Iranian-aligned political and militant group, Hezbollah, has not been a primary target of the investigation, the party has publically dissented against Bitar and the investigation. Highlighted in the Middle East Monitor: “Bitar has not pursued any members of the heavily armed Hezbollah group. But Hezbollah campaigned fiercely against him as he sought to question its allies… Hezbollah has accused the United States of meddling in the probe. The US ambassador has denied this. Hezbollah dismissed accusations after the blast that it had stored arms at the Port and says it had nothing to do with the blast. Its adversaries have long accused the group of controlling the Port – something it also denies.”

The Arab Tawheed party mirrored Hezbollah’s disapproval and, specifically, expressed concern that Bitar’s unilateral power will further divide the Lebanese population. Described in Al Mayadeen, Wiam Wahhab, the head of the Arab Tawheed party, announced that Bitar’s acts “could trigger another Lebanese civil war, accusing him of violating the law and the constitution, saying, ‘It is as if someone installed him as a de facto ruler over Lebanon’…‘In what capacity does [Bitar] allow himself to charge public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat?’ Wahhab said, reminding the public that the judge had received French judges and saying, ‘we all heard the comments of US officials, so he [Judge Bitar] took advantage of the matter and acted on the spot.’”

Despite infighting among the political elite, the civilian population, especially friends and family members of those who died in the port blast years ago, offered support to Bitar. France24 shares these perspectives:Judge Bitar enjoys the confidence of many Lebanese, including the families of the victims who consider him a man of integrity and courage. Naggear, [father of a victim], wants Judge Bitar to keep at the job and not throw in the towel when ‘he’s faced with the prosecutor who is acting as a pawn of the regime, even though he had recused himself from the case.’”

In the nation’s capital, civilians demonstrated their frustrations with the political contention that has influenced the investigation. Al-Jazeera noted that on January 26, “family members of the victims of the 2020 Beirut port blast have tried to break into the Justice Palace in the Lebanese capital as they protested against the lack of progress in the investigation over the explosion.”

This support for Bitar has integrated itself among some political leaders, as well. Explained in the National News Agency of Lebanon, on January 27, approximately 40 Lebanese lawmakers “became the latest group to back the judge investigating the catastrophic 2020 Beirut port blast and call for the country’s top prosecutor to be held accountable for steps taken against the judge and his probe.” 

Many believe the outcome of this investigation will forecast Lebanon’s future. Written in Al Arabiya: “In their move to bury an investigation into the Beirut port blast, Lebanon’s ruling elite have driven another nail in the coffin of the collapsing state, stirring conflict in the judiciary as they try to avoid accountability at any cost…‘This is the destruction of the judiciary,’ said Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief of Annahar newspaper. ‘I fear they are dismantling the country.’”

  • 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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