For weeks now, Lebanon’s cabinet has failed to meet, showing once again how politics remains far more important to the country’s leaders than urgent economic revitalisation. The principal reason for this is that Hezbollah and its main Shiite ally, the Amal movement, have boycotted cabinet sessions since October 12. They are demanding the removal of Tarek Bitar, the judge investigating the Beirut port explosion on August 4 last year.
On Monday, there were reports that an agreement had been reached between the president Michel Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri to remove Mr Bitar, though Mr Aoun’s supporters denied this. The judge has pursued his investigation against rising pressure from Hezbollah and its allies, who have accused him of “politicising” his inquiry. They are angry that Mr Bitar has called in former government ministers for questioning, including Amal members and politicians loyal to Hezbollah’s allies.
There has been a strong sectarian component to the standoff, which has complicated any compromise solution. The vast majority of those killed or injured in the port blast were Christian, so that many Christians today would consider an effort by the political class to curtail the investigation as an unacceptable cover-up.
With elections scheduled for the coming spring, the main Christian parties have sought to avoid creating the impression that they are hindering Mr Bitar’s efforts. The fear of losing seats has been particularly felt among Mr Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which has put up a facade of support for an independent judiciary, worried that it could lose Christian votes if it was seen as leaning in the direction of its ally Hezbollah.
Over the weekend, however, before reports of the alleged deal, there was a shift in the Aounists’ position, when the FPM issued a statement criticising the Bitar investigation. Officials close to the Aounists are in prison because of it, and many believe the president’s partisans see a continuation of the cabinet deadlock as a cause of more economic woe. This could undermine Aounist fortunes in the parliamentary elections, but also the presidential prospects next year of Gebran Bassil, Mr Aoun’s son-in-law.
Many observers believe that Hezbollah was somehow involved in securing and storing the over 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port, probably to use against rebels in Syria. Yet, the party was not alone responsible. Ministers and officials named by Hezbollah’s allies also covered the presence of the material, which exploded and destroyed large swathes of Beirut.
Particularly interesting has been the judiciary's refusal to bend to repeated appeals by lawyers of the ministers – called in by Judge Bitar – to have Mr Bitar himself removed from the case. Lebanon’s judiciary, despite the high quality of some of its judges, has been notoriously prone to political influence, but it seems that this time Mr Bitar’s determination has stiffened the back of some senior judges.
In November, three judges resigned over political interference in judicial matters. Last week, Souhail Abboud, the president of the Higher Judicial Council, called on judges to defend their independence from political affairs.
All this is not likely to guarantee a positive outcome for Mr Bitar’s investigation. Lebanon’s politicians cannot tolerate an independent judiciary, and now that the Aounists have shifted on Mr Bitar, the probable outcome is that some sort of arrangement will be worked out that prevents him from interviewing ministers. However, reaching that point may be more complicated than anticipated, largely because of public anger.
A takeaway from this episode is that Hezbollah continues to struggle when it enters the viper’s nest of Lebanese sectarian politics. The party will not be greatly weakened by the Bitar investigation, and the judge has not levelled any accusations at party members, but something else is taking place. Increasingly, as Hezbollah has adopted divisive positions on public issues, it has been exposed to criticism from other sects, and this has eroded the system the party set up in 2006 to defend its interests.
At the time, Hezbollah had allied itself with Mr Aoun, and had used this and intimidation to gradually impose its domination of the political system. As significantly, it also gained government endorsement of its weapons and resistance in successive cabinet statements. The party built up a protective system around itself that allowed it to retain the commanding heights of the state and limit opposition.
This came crashing down after the economic collapse of 2019. Hezbollah, in trying to defend the hegemony of the political class, was accused by many Lebanese of being the primary prop of the corrupt order. Lebanon's economic deterioration increased resentment against the party nationally, even if it retains Shiite support.
This situation has meant that Hezbollah no longer enjoys the layers of protection it once did. For some this is meaningless, because Hezbollah remains strong. Perhaps, but amid widespread domestic hostility, the party’s margin of manoeuvre, especially in a conflict with Israel, has been reduced. Had the party 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 has been increasingly evident. Recently, its deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, made a speech that was much remarked upon, in which he declared that Lebanon was known in the four corners of the word thanks to its resistance. This was the Lebanon Hezbollah wanted, and those Lebanese who disagreed could “search for another solution.” Hezbollah’s problem is that most of its Lebanese antagonists don’t want to. They're not going anywhere.