Hezbollah’s inability to remove judge blocks Lebanon
For weeks now, the Lebanese cabinet has not met, once again showing how much more politics remains for the country’s leaders than urgent economic revitalization. The main reason is that Hezbollah and its main Shiite ally, the Amal movement, have been boycotting cabinet sessions since October 12. They are asking for the dismissal of Tarek Bitar, the investigating judge on the explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4.
On Monday, it was reported that an agreement had been reached between President Michel Aoun and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri to impeach Mr. Bitar, although Mr. Aoun’s supporters denied it. The judge continued his investigation into mounting pressure from Hezbollah and its allies, who accused him of “politicizing” his investigation. They are angry that Mr. Bitar has summoned former government ministers for questioning, including members of Amal and politicians loyal to Hezbollah allies.
There was a strong sectarian component in the deadlock, which complicated any compromise solution. The vast majority of those killed or injured in the port blast were Christians, so many Christians today would view a political effort to reduce the investigation as an unacceptable cover-up.
With elections slated for next spring, major Christian parties have sought to avoid giving the impression that they are hampering Mr. Bitar’s efforts. The fear of losing seats was particularly felt within the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Mr. Aoun, which has displayed front support for an independent judiciary, fearing that it would lose Christian voices if it was seen to have an inclination. in the sense of its ally Hezbollah.
Over the weekend, however, before reports of the alleged deal, there was a shift in the Aounist position, when the FPM issued a statement criticizing the Bitar investigation. Officials close to the Aounists are in jail because of it, and many believe that supporters of the president see the continued cabinet standoff as a cause of more economic woes. This could call into question the Aounist fortunes in the legislative elections, but also the presidential prospects next year for Gebran Bassil, Mr. Aoun’s son-in-law.
Many observers believe that Hezbollah was somehow involved in securing and storing the more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the Port of Beirut, possibly for use against rebels in Syria. However, the party was not solely responsible. Ministers and officials appointed by Hezbollah allies also covered the presence of the materiel, which exploded and destroyed large swathes of Beirut.
Particularly interesting has been the refusal of the judiciary to comply with repeated appeals by lawyers for the ministers – summoned by Judge Bitar – to have Mr Bitar himself removed from the case. Lebanese justice, despite the high quality of some of its judges, has been notoriously subject to political influence, but it seems that this time Mr. Bitar’s determination has stiffened the backs of some high-ranking judges.
In November, three judges resigned for political interference in court cases. Last week, Souhail Abboud, president of the Supreme Judicial Council, called on judges to defend their independence from political affairs.
All this is not likely to guarantee a positive outcome to Mr. Bitar’s investigation. Lebanese politicians cannot tolerate an independent judiciary, and now that Aounists have turned to Mr. Bitar, the likely outcome is that some sort of arrangement will be worked out that will prevent him from interviewing ministers. However, reaching this point can be trickier than expected, in large part due to public anger.
The takeaway from this episode is that Hezbollah continues to struggle when it enters the vipers’ nest of Lebanese sectarian politics. The party will not be greatly weakened by the Bitar investigation, and the judge has not brought any charges against the party members, but something else is happening. Increasingly, as Hezbollah has taken divisive positions on public issues, it has been exposed to criticism from other sects, which has eroded the system the party put in place in 2006 to defend its interests. .
At the time, Hezbollah had allied with Mr. Aoun, and used that and intimidation to gradually impose its dominance of the political system. Just as significantly, he has also garnered the government’s endorsement of his guns and resistance in successive cabinet statements. The party built around itself a protective system which enabled it to retain the dominant heights of the state and limit the opposition.
This collapsed after the economic collapse of 2019. Hezbollah, in trying to defend the hegemony of the political class, has been accused by many Lebanese of being the main supporter of the corrupt order. Lebanon’s economic deterioration has heightened resentment against the party nationally, even though it retains Shiite support.
This situation means that Hezbollah no longer enjoys the levels of protection it once had. For some, this does not make sense, because Hezbollah remains strong. Perhaps, but in the midst of widespread domestic hostility, the party’s room for maneuver, especially in a conflict with Israel, has been reduced. If the party had been indifferent to the environment in which it operated, it would not have worked so hard to shape it to its advantage.
Hezbollah’s frustration is increasingly evident. Recently, his Deputy Secretary General, Naim Qassem, gave a much noticed speech, in which he said that Lebanon is known around the world for its resistance. It was Lebanon that Hezbollah wanted, and Lebanese who disagreed could “look for another solution.” Hezbollah’s problem is that most of its Lebanese opponents don’t want it. They’re not going anywhere.
Posted: Dec 22, 2021, 4 a.m.