In downtown Beirut, empty buildings are plastered with depictions of over 200 faces. These are the faces of the lives lost on Aug. 4, 2020, when a neglected stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port ripped through metal and flesh, taking over 200 lives, leaving over 6000 people wounded and more than 300,000 people without homes. The blast would have been even worse were it not for the massive grain silos towering over the blast point. More than a year and a half after the blast, the Lebanese political class’ interference has ensured no officials have been convicted.
Lebanon has been plagued by a series of problems since the start of its economic crisis in August 2019. Since then, the local currency, once pegged to the dollar, has lost 90% of its value. Lebanon once boasted a healthy middle class but now 75% of its population has slipped into poverty. Electricity cuts have been a constant since the civil war but have increased in frequency and length. A revolution that aimed to overthrow the political class kicked off in October 2019 but was largely derailed by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Then the blast came.
When citizens call for justice for the Beirut blast in 2020, their political representatives have only responded with threats of civil war or multiple lawsuits against the probe’s lead investigator.
For many, the explosion was a manifestation of years of negligence by the Lebanese government and the former warlords who still pull the country’s political and economic strings. Traditionally, the political class is made up of two blocks; one that is pro-Western and Saudi and the other that is pro-Syria and Iran. But when threatened, as was the case during the October 2019 revolution or 2016 elections in Beirut, these two blocks unify to keep their firm grip over the country and its resources. The political establishment relies, at least partially, on their stranglehold over state ministries and resources to enrich themselves and coerce domestic support. Should either bloc fall from power, the other would lose their scapegoat and thus their veil of legitimacy to rule.
Public anger and frustration today is manifesting in myriad ways — including subversive graffiti that decorates the capital and by giving ministers daring to venture outside for a public dinner a slap across the face. The 10–15 million strong diaspora that has long powered the Lebanese economy is also registering to vote in record numbers, and a series of new political actors and parties have emerged from the country’s civil society. Parliamentary elections, it seems, are the avenue where many are pouring their hopes.
THE PROMISE OF LEBANON’S ELECTION
Elections are set for mid-May 2022. While 45% of voters who took part in the 2018 elections said they would vote for new parties, but according to polls by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Foundation only half of the Lebanese population plans on voting at all.
While few are inspired by the traditional parties, there is also mass skepticism that any of the new figures or parties can muster up adequate support to win enough seats to influence parliament. Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who took the mantle of Lebanon’s most prominent and powerful Sunni Muslim politician after the assassination of his father in 2005, has suspended his involvement in Lebanon’s politics. Hariri’s decision was initially met by enthusiasm from civil society who hoped to fill the gap. But the current electoral law has complicated matters. While the new law is based on proportional representation, which requires candidates to run on lists that meet sectarian quotas, it is the traditional political parties that have an advantage. For instance, established political parties will more easily fill such lists over upstart reform candidates who may not be able to fill their lists with enough popular candidates that also meet the sectarian quota. This has left political scientists predicting that candidates aligned with Hariri’s political opponent, Hezbollah, will benefit the most from Hariri’s absence.
There are also doubts elections will even go ahead, despite assurances from various political figures. Parliament elects the president in Lebanon. President Michel Aoun’s term ends later this year and he would like to see his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, follow in his footsteps. The problem is Bassil, who was subject to US sanctions last year for allegations of graft and corruption involving billions of dollars, is probably the country’s most unpopular politician among citizens and widely disliked by his own party’s traditional allies, Hezbollah and Amal.
The US and EU join Lebanese citizens in seeing elections as a crucial step toward reforming the country’s corrupt political infrastructure. Failure to go ahead with elections could lead to sanctions, though fear of sanctions hasn’t derailed the stubbornness of Lebanese political leaders in the past. While Lebanese citizens suffer, the political class has heartily enriched themselves over the last 30 years. Months after the blast rocked Beirut, Aoun still didn’t feel the need to meet the families of the victims. Since then, the political class’ only efforts related to the blast have been to disrupt any attempts at seeking accountability or justice. When citizens call for justice, their political representatives have only responded with threats of civil war or multiple lawsuits against the probe’s lead investigator.
SAME OLD BAGGAGE
Lebanon’s woes are nothing new. The country has been the arena to more than a dozen assassinations since 2004. The targets have been outspoken politicians, journalists, security officials, and intellectuals who opposed the Syrian occupation that ended shortly after Hariri’s assassination in 2005 or those critical of the Iranian-backed party and militia Hezbollah. The country has felt the weight of the loss of figures like Samir Kassir, a writer and thinker who documented Beirut’s history and struggles of the Arab people in a fight for political liberation, and Lokman Slim, an activist and publisher assassinated six months to the day after the blast. To date, none of the assassins have faced justice.
Faced with this heavy history, few Lebanese expected the state to provide justice this time either. One investigator was dismissed just over six months after the blast. He was accused of political bias since his home was damaged in the explosion. His replacement was a young, politically independent judge named Tarek Bitar.
Bitar went to work, boldly calling numerous senior politicians for questioning and then charging them with criminal negligence when they failed to appear. Despite Bitar calling on politicians from both political blocks, he was also accused by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah as being politically influenced. In October 2022, armed supporters from Hezbollah and their ally Amal marched through Beirut’s Tayouneh neighborhood in a call to remove Bitar from the blast portfolio. The location was symbolic as it was once the frontline of the civil war that divided East from West Beirut. The march led to clashes leaving seven dead, including civilians, and more than 30 people injured in the worst violence seen in Beirut since 2008.
Bitar still continues as the lead investigator. His work has gained him many admirers in the country, many of the victims’ family members among them. But his work has been forced to pause multiple times due to lawsuits — many frivolous — filed by the politicians he’s called in for questioning.
STILL SEEKING ACCOUNTABILITY
As more than 19 months have passed, the families of the dead are still seeking justice. Their latest battle has been with the economy ministry over trying to ensure the grain silos remain standing as a monument to the blast. Once again, the government is looking to erase the memory of the harm it inflicted on Lebanon’s citizens.
Many of the buildings near the port have been rebuilt. Back in downtown, depictions of the martyrs’ faces hang on concrete walls whose empty interiors are indicative of the ongoing financial crisis. The haunting imagery is there so their memory cannot be erased or paved over. But when night falls, the portraits — much like so many of the citizens suffering from various shortages the state is failing to provide — are also shrouded in darkness.
Justin Salhani is a Paris-based writer, journalist, and producer with an interest in identity, migration, Lebanese society and politics, cosmopolitanism, and the anthropology of soccer, among other things that don’t fit in a short bio. He has previously been based in Beirut, Washington, DC, and Milan.