North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

Deadly clashes in Beirut show Lebanon is a country of no accountability

At least six killed and dozens injured in outbreak of heavy gunfire that will also create further obstacles to port blast investigation

Walid el Houri
15 October 2021, 11.38am
Shiite fighters take aim during the Beirut clashes
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UPI / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

New rounds of fighting erupted yesterday in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. The clashes took place in the Tayouneh area, a historic demarcation line during the country's 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Heavy gunfire was heard in the morning and lasted for hours. Official sources say that at least six people were killed and dozens injured. Material damage amid a severe financial and economic crisis has also been recorded, with homes, businesses and properties heavily damaged by gunshots, explosives and fires.

The shooting was heard when a protest that had been called for by the two major Shiite parties (Amal and Hezbollah) was on its way through the area, headed towards the Palace of Justice. Demonstrators were marching against what they allege is the politicisation of the Beirut port explosion investigation by Judge Tarek Bitar. Early reports described snipers on rooftops shooting towards the demonstrators.

Bitar took charge of the investigation in February when his predecessor was removed after being accused of bias by some state officials who he had in turn accused of neglect.

An unknown figure who has remained away from the spotlight and has been supported by victims’ families for appearing to go after state officials, Bitar had requested to question several former ministers and high-ranking politicians – among them people close to the two Shiite parties.

Just three days before the clashes, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, sternly warned of the security repercussions if the judge was not removed. In a televised speech, he accused the judge of bias and of working towards very dangerous repercussions. He insisted that the situation could not continue and called for a replacement judge.

Echoes of the civil war

Bitar has angered many in the country’s political establishment – the Sunni leadership already launched a campaign against him last month by issuing a statement accusing him of targeting Sunnis and having a vengeful political agenda.

At the end of last month, Reuters reported that the judge was threatened by a senior Hezbollah official.

Although two sides of the sectarian and political divide accuse him of bias, lately the job of removing him and curtailing the investigation seems to have become the mission of the powerful Shiite party.

Yesterday’s heavy gunfire and loud explosions at the scene of what once was a demarcation line between the Christian neighborhood of Ain El Remmaneh, and the Shiite neighborhood of Shiah, evokes memories of the brutal civil war, which officially started when a bus carrying Palestinians was attacked by a Christian militia as they were passing that point.

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Reports described snipers on rooftops, in addition to explosions, and gunfights between armed men or with the army. It is unclear who was involved in the shooting, and judging from previous experiences in the country, it is unlikely we will find out much about what really took place.

As quickly as it began, the shooting suddenly stopped. It is unclear whether the Lebanese security forces or the army have any information about the identity of the shooters – or at least whether this will be shared with the public.

There are several narratives already circulating about what may have happened. Hezbollah and Amal were quick to accuse the Lebanese Forces of being behind what they called an ambush. Others have said that the fighting started when armed Hezbollah and Amal supporters entered the Christian neighbourhood and supporters of the Lebanese Forces were protecting their neighbourhood. Due to the lack of access, transparency and accountability, all of these theories remain speculative.

The Lebanese army issued a statement saying that it has arrested nine individuals “from both sides”, without specifying what exactly those sides are.

It remains to be seen if any investigation that reveals what happened will indeed take place, especially considering that the tragedy occurred at a time when political forces in the country were trying to curtail another investigation into another crime – the August port blast that killed more than 200 people, left thousands injured and destroyed large parts of the capital.

Meanwhile, in his first major public appearance, Bassam Mawlawi, the new minister of interior, said that his ministry and the security and intelligence forces “had no prior security information about what happened, to the contrary, the organisers of the demonstration had assured us that they were peaceful and that they chose elite people like lawyers and syndicates and the like to participate in the demonstration”.

What is clear is that the prospect of having any accountability in Lebanon has riled forces across the political divide

The minister, himself a former judge, condemned attacks on the media reporting the clashes, which he said he had not been alerted to (at least one TV station crew was attacked by supporters of Amal and Hezbollah). However, he was quick to justify it as one of “the results of the shooting”.

Addressing a group of journalists, the minister said: “We fear the reactions to the deaths. And like you are complaining about attacks on the media, we are seeing an attack on the whole country.”

On Tuesday, Mohammad Mortada, the new minister of culture, who is himself close to Hezbollah and Amal, reportedly promised the rest of the cabinet members that if the issue of the judge was not resolved, they would “see something they never saw before on Thursday”.

Anger across the political divide

With other crimes, such as the assassination of staunch Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim, Hezbollah and Amal called for investigations rather than jumping to conclusions. Yet they have now jumped to conclusions by accusing the Lebanese Forces of ambushing their peaceful demonstration. The Lebanese Forces have denied it and in turn asked for investigations to reveal the truth.

Meanwhile, videos showing hundreds of Hezbollah and Amal supporters armed to the teeth and walking through the southern suburbs of Beirut have begun circulating on social media. Others show demonstrators attacking the opposing neighbourhood before the shooting started.

With the country preparing for the first general election since the start of the major financial crisis and the eruption of the large protest movement against the political elite, political parties are trying to revive their popularity among disgruntled populations.

Yesterday’s events served the narratives of all the sectarian parties involved. For the Christian Lebanese Forces, they can present themselves as protectors of their community, while for the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal, they can confirm to their supporters that they are not only victims, but also right about the whole protest movement being nothing more than a facade for the Lebanese Forces.

What is clear is that the prospect of having any accountability in Lebanon has riled forces across the political divide, who fear that if one politician loses their immunity it might form a precedent for others to follow, and the halo of untouchability surrounding all major political figures in the country would potentially shatter. After all, the Lebanon system has worked to keep its financial, political and military elites away from any form of accountability.

Regardless of whether the clashes involved the Lebanese Forces, Hezbollah, Amal or any other militia/political party, the reality is that it comes at a perfect moment for former ministers facing warrants for their arrest for questioning.

It allows them to avoid having to meet the judge who has angered almost everyone within the Lebanese political establishment and across the political divide for daring to suggest that high-ranking politicians and security officers have responsibility for one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. Meanwhile, families of the explosion victims have voiced their support for Bitar and warned against any campaigns to silence the investigation.

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