It was déjà vu for a few hours Thursday in Beirut as memories of Lebanon’s vicious 1975-1990 civil war came alive in streets of the capital. Snipers fired on a mob, riflemen shot back from below, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade, bystanders scrambled for cover and, after four hours, six people were dead.
And the mayhem took place along the so-called Green Line that had separated Muslim and Christian factions during the civil war.
It is unlikely that this outbreak will devolve to that level of sectarian warfare. Nevertheless, the spurt of violence highlighted a chronic and dangerous truth of Lebanese politics: Any effort to change Lebanon’s sectarian system, or any move that might weaken the hold on power of its corrupt components quickly attract threats of unrest, or worse.
In this case, the investigation into last summer’s devastating explosion at Beirut port was the trigger. The search for who was responsible poses a threat to ruling factions in Lebanon, and especially to Hezbollah, the potent Shiite party and militia.
The blast, described as one of history’s biggest non-nuclear explosions, damaged buildings within 15 miles of the capital, killed at least 215 residents, injured 7,000 others, and coincided with a severe economic depression; recurrent shortages of food, electric power, and fuel; and a serious death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.
The accidental ignition of a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible compound, caused the explosion. The question of who is responsible for storing the volatile chemical has tormented Lebanon, and especially relatives of the dead, ever since.
After months of delays and political interference, a fearless magistrate named Tarek Bitar has ordered the detentions of former government officials and some security agents. All have refused his calls to surrender or to appear for questioning.
Among them is Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister and high official of the Shiite Amal Party, a close ally of Hezbollah. On Tuesday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah railed against the judge’s actions. On Thursday, Amal and Hezbollah followers marched on the Palace of Justice to bully Bitar out of office.
Aya Mazjoub, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, criticized the show of intimidation: “Lebanese are left with a false choice: stability with no justice, or justice without stability,” she said.
Hezbollah blamed the violence on the Lebanese Forces, a Christian faction dating from the civil war. Lebanese Forces leaders denied all.
President Michael Aoun called out the army and by late afternoon the shooting stopped. With the possibility that sectarian violence would continue – Hezbollah commands the only organized militia left over from the civil war – Aoun moved to tamp down passions. Gunfire “is not acceptable,” he said in a televised speech. “The street is not the place to express objections.”
On the one hand, Aoun’s words appeared to reflect a break with his on-again, off-again ally Hezbollah, whose parliamentary votes helped make him president in 2016.
On the other hand, he insisted that it’s up to the ruling cabinet to resolve any controversies about Bitar’s investigations. During the past two years of multiple crises, the cabinets of three successive governments have failed to resolve any of Lebanon’s crises. Especially, they have been unable to make political and economic reforms demanded by Western donors before they provide aid.
The main cause of the impasse is Hezbollah. The militaristic party, along with its ally, the Shiite party Amal, has demanded veto power over any government decision. They opposed the formation of a non-partisan cabinet of technocrats to manage government business and funds. Government money fulfills the need of Lebanese political factions to provide jobs and lucrative contracts to their followers.
In 2019, when protestors in Beirut and across the country demonstrated against government mismanagement and corruption, Hezbollah was thrown in with all the other confessional parties. The protests struck a blow to Hezbollah’s self-image as a steadfast defender of the poor and of Lebanon’s national interests.
Finally, protestors demanded an end to the sectarian system in which government jobs were handed out via religious quotas—an assault on everyone’s power base.
Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement party were also the targets of angry criticism and as the demonstrations persisted, the party joined Amal and Hezbollah in opposition to the demands. Some militants roamed Beirut and beat the dissidents.
Since the end of the civil war, Hezbollah has unapologetically defended its interests with violence. The most notorious example was the assassination of then-former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. A car bomb exploded on Beirut’s waterfront boulevard killing him, a former finance minister and bodyguards. Hariri had opposed the influence of Syria on Lebanon. Syria, along with Iran, is a major ally of Hezbollah.
In 2020, a United Nations Special Tribunal convicted a Hezbollah operative of the killing. Nasrallah refused to turn him over to authorities.
Hezbollah flexed its muscles in 2008 when it sent allies to occupy the western part of Beirut after the government tried to remove from the airport a top Hezbollah militia agent who managed delivery of arms from Iran and Syria. The government also ordered Hezbollah to dismantle its private telecommunications network in the south of the country.
The occupation lasted four days. The Lebanese army, which was theoretically available to put down such civil strife, remained in its barracks. Officials feared the army would disintegrate into sectarian factions if called into action.
Hezbollah’s allies left the downtown on their own and government efforts to rein in militia activities came to end.
Is Aoun willing or capable to put Hezbollah under state control and also deliver justice – with its agreement – to the Lebanese victims of the port blast? He and Hezbollah cabinet members reportedly quarreled loudly this week over what to do about Bitar and supposedly Aoun stuck to his guns: the investigation must go on.
He also called out the army to restore order Thursday – a departure for any Lebanese government.
It would be revolutionary if the army did more to deter Hezbollah intimidation. Given that the military is, like all government institutions, divided along sectarian lines, that might be a step too far.