After the Beirut port blast last year, the prospect of a failed investigation — let alone two —into responsibility for that monstrous explosion would have provoked global incredulity. More than 200 people died when hundreds of tons of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate fertilizer caught fire in a port warehouse, and exploded. The shockwaves from the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion could be felt as far away as Cyprus, and caused up to $18 billion in damage.
And it could not have happened at a worse time. Lebanon was already facing intensifying crises, sparked by the collapse of what financial experts termed “a state-sponsored Ponzi scheme,” and a worsening pandemic. The Aug. 4 explosion accelerated Lebanon’s downward spiral from a plummeting currency, hyperinflation, political gridlock, and a massive erosion of sovereignty. More than 80 percent of the population is living in multidimensional poverty, lacking lack stable incomes and access to adequate housing, healthcare and education.
The port explosion did not just reflect deeply embedded ills in Lebanese politics and society. It also became a lethal demonstration of how decades of corruption and clientelism engineered Beirut’s fall from its lofty perch as the Paris of the Middle East to a mere leper of the Levant.
Naturally, the port blast required a serious investigation into its causes, if only to assuage the bereft seeking answers and accountability for their departed loved ones. However, in a land ravaged by a confluence of crises, partly caused by the cabal of out-of-touch political elites running it, the investigation inevitably morphed into a symbolic battleground pitting an already desperate public against an obstinate ruling class.
Unfortunately, the political leadership appears to be dominating that battle given the recent suspension of the investigation for a second time. The suspension came at the behest of two members of parliament who allege that Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of the investigation, is biased. It caps a relentless campaign by Lebanese authorities to cripple the investigation at almost every turn.
Judge Bitar had succeeded Judge Fadi Sawan, who was first tasked with investigating the port blast only to be dismissed by the Court of Cassation after issuing negligence charges against the former prime minister, Hassan Diab, and three other former ministers. The blatant obstruction has also involved refusing to lift immunities for implicated members of parliament and failures to answer court summons or appear for questioning.
The practice of shielding politicians, the connected, and well-to-do is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon. There was ample justification for simply concluding that the investigation was never going to hold anyone to account, and the truth therein would simply be buried — as has happened after high-profile assassinations and bombings.
The desperate attempts to impede the investigation have become a microcosm of Lebanon’s deep fractures and seemingly endless woes.
Judge Bitar has, however, remained steadfast and unmoved by a Lebanese political class desperately closing ranks and latching on to claims of constitutional immunity. The escalating threats have only served to assure the embattled judge that he on the right track.
More than 75 percent of the case is now complete, and investigators are actively seeking answers regarding what could have sparked the explosion, and probing for hidden links between the parties responsible for offloading the shipment in Lebanon. This much progress amid relentless obstruction has helped to reassure victims’ families that Judge Bitar is the best person to see the investigation through.
However, uncovering the participants and the obscure shell companies responsible for the fertilizer shipment is fraught with serious risks, especially when those truths implicate certain Lebanese politicians and security officials. These risks are not unknown to an unperturbed Judge Bitar or the wider Lebanese public. Wafiq Safa, the elusive head of one of Hezbollah’s internal security agencies, is said to have delivered a threatening letter to Bitar, warning he will be removed by force should the obstruction by Lebanese authorities fail to derail the judge’s investigation.
Even the rare speeches by the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, have taken aim at Bitar, signaling the quasi-state’s intent to divert attention away from its links to the blast itself or affiliated politicians implicated in the investigation, such as the former minister for public works, Youssef Fenianos. He joins a raft of top government and security officials suspected of negligence, including former interior minister Nohad Machnouk and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Others are likely to be ensnared in Judge Bitar’s investigation, since many officials in parliament, government and the security agencies were aware of the improperly stored fertilizer, and were even warned of its potential dangers.
This “war” on Judge Bitar and the desperate attempts to impede the investigation have become a microcosm of Lebanon’s deep fractures and seemingly endless woes. It is now experiencing the worst economic crisis since the 1850s, strangled further by the cycle of corruption enshrined in its confessional political system of governance.
Even the return of a proper government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati has inspired only dismissive commentary, laughter and exasperation, since the leadership is the product of a failed system.
Aside from the threats within, Lebanon has also become a venue for numerous regional proxy struggles, emboldening elements like the Tehran-backed Hezbollah, which acts as a kingmaker, while its American or French-backed opponents seek to capitalize on the urgency of reversing Lebanon’s imminent collapse. So far, Hezbollah is winning the war of influence, with the arrangement of fuel imports from Iran. However, analysts agree that such a deal will not meet Lebanon’s fuel needs, nor is it likely to last in perpetuity despite assertions by Hezbollah.
It is within that conflagration that the Beirut investigation limps on, renewing hopes that, even in the worst of times, the pursuit of truth and accountability will not relent. For most Lebanese worn down by myriad crises, Judge Bitar’s probe is perhaps the last chance to shake up an unaccountable political class hellbent on prolonging its grip on power. Further politicization of the investigation and the prospect of Bitar’s dismissal risk fueling more outrage in a public forced to witness the slow unraveling of their once-cherished Lebanese state.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell