A Troubling Time in Lebanon

It’s a truism to suggest that Lebanon is a disaster. The nation has lurched from crisis to crisis, government to government, and killing to killing for decades. It is out of energy, with regular blackouts, food shortages, and lawless militias patrolling the streets. Beirut is dominated by a rotating coalition of crooks and terrorists, with the government of Iran ultimately calling the shots. Each time you think it’s hit rock bottom, there’s another disaster to plumb the depths. And no, it’s not the port explosion of August 2020—one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history—that destroyed a large chunk of Beirut and killed more than 200, mostly Christian, Lebanese. It’s the search for justice in that apocalyptic event that appears to be Lebanon’s final straw, the road to yet another civil war. And worse.

For those who have (understandably) turned away since then, the explosion precipitated the fall of the Lebanese government, with then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab explaining, apparently without irony, that “[w]e are taking a step back to stand with the people, to wage the battle for change with them.” Many expected the judicial investigation of the port disaster would also go the way of all such inquiries in Lebanon (does anyone know who actually murdered former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri?); but to the surprise of Lebanon’s political class, the investigating magistrate in charge actually began to ask difficult questions.

How did 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate sit in storage at the port of Beirut for years without anyone knowing? Why was it being stored so close to private homes, risking exactly the kind of explosion that occurred? Who was paying for its storage? Who shipped it? Who signed the regulatory papers? Inevitably, even in a government as rickety as Lebanon’s, people want to cover their rears with paperwork. But almost equally inevitably, most government ministers and officials were uninterested in answering questions about that paperwork.

The first magistrate in the investigation, Fadi Sawan, was forced out by politicians claiming he was biased. His successor, Tarek Bitar, is now under similar pressure, and his investigation has been suspended multiple times. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy-army-cum-Lebanese-political-leadership, has demanded his resignation. Last week, fighting over Bitar’s efforts to question two members of Amal—a Shiite party aligned with Hezbollah—descended into violence; seven people were killed.

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