Analysis |

While Its Leaders Snub the Beirut Blast Investigation, Lebanon Is Running on Fumes

The Lebanese government is trying to show investigators that its politicians will not be questioned, while the army and police are getting ready for the streets to erupt anew

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Lebanon's Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri walks with Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, December 11, 2020.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“You can’t extort a prime minister. That’s final. We won’t accept this,” Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri fumed this week. His rage was directed at the announcement of the judge investigating the deadly Beirut port blast in August. According to the declaration, the judge intends to investigate every prime minister who has held the position since 2013, the year the ammonia that caused the explosion was unloaded from a ship into the port's storage.   

The judge, Fadi Sawan, even "had the nerve" to accuse outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab of overall responsibility for the explosion. He also summoned three former ministers for questioning, on top of the dozens of witnesses who have already been questioned and the detainees awaiting trial. 

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The shockwaves caused by this explosion, which killed some 200 people, wounded more than 3,000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless, are far from subsiding. The Lebanese public, mired in a difficult battle for survival, has admittedly been patient; even the general strikes planned for this week were either canceled or failed. 

Nevertheless, there’s fear that the pent-up anger might explode during the upcoming holiday season. The army, police and other security forces have already been ordered to make special preparations for the possibility that the streets might once again erupt.

Lebanese pundits warn that this time, indicting and convicting low-level workers – the ones who repaired the breach in the fence around the ammonia warehouse that blew up – won’t be enough. This time, the public wants to see heads roll among the politicians and the wealthy elites, who knew about the danger for years but did nothing. 

At first glance, Judge Sawan’s investigation seems to be heading toward satisfying that demand by charging high-level officials. The storm he sparked by summoning ministers and prime ministers for questioning shows that he’s taking his job seriously.

But Lebanon isn’t a country that puts any politicians, much less prime ministers, on trial. The three ministers summoned for questioning – former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former Transportation Minister Ghazi Zaiter and former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos – simply ignored the summons. 

Aftermath of a massive explosion is seen in in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020.Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

The interior minister said he doesn’t intend to arrest them to force them to show up, nor will he arrest Diab, the prime minister. “I’ve told everything I know and I don’t intend to answer any more questions,” Diab said in response to journalists’ questions. And the previous prime ministers have ignored the investigation entirely, as if they were never party to the negligence at the port. 

The ministers wanted for questioning say the judge has no authority to summon them, since they enjoy parliamentary immunity. This claim doesn’t seem to have any legal basis, since the matters they would be questioned about are not related to their parliamentary work, but to criminal neglect.

Nevertheless, the investigation is expected to last a long time, and it’s not inconceivable that the judge will eventually resign in frustration if he can’t do his job.

The irony is that the power to appoint an investigating judge lies with the Supreme Judicial Council, whose members are personally appointed by the cabinet. This council apparently thought Sawan was in its pocket and wouldn’t go any further than it wanted. 

In the meantime, Sawan has announced that he’s postponing the investigation for 10 days. A petition demanding his dismissal has already been filed.

A burning protest symbol after a demonstration denouncing the naming of Saad Hariri as a potential candidate as the country's new prime minister, Beirut, October 21, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Glances from Washington

The scandal of this investigation has so far served as a drainage channel for a much more important dispute that has delayed the formation of a consensus government for three months already. 
When President Michel Aoun appointed Hariri to form the next government in October, it seemed that they had agreed on its composition and the new cabinet would be presented shortly.

The nomination of Hariri, who had resigned in October 2019, was acceptable to most of Lebanon’s main parties, including Hezbollah, and had received both French and U.S. backing. But in recent weeks, a deep disagreement has emerged between him and Aoun over the appointment of certain cabinet ministers.

Aoun wants to decide who the Christian ministers should be, arguing that it’s unacceptable for a Sunni prime minister to choose the Christian ministers while a Christian president can’t choose the Sunni ministers. 

But Hariri objects, fearing, rightly so, that the president’s appointees would include people who worked against him during his last term, including Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. This isn’t a new drama in Lebanon’s political theater; the 31 years that have passed since the country’s civil war ended have included long periods in which it lacked a functioning government. 

The dispute over the cabinet’s composition isn’t just personal. It also affects the government’s ability to function and make crucial decisions that are necessitated by the country’s economic collapse. Under the constitution, key decisions must be approved by at least two-thirds of the cabinet. Opposition from a single bloc with just over a third of the seats is therefore enough to prevent a decision from passing. 

French President Emmanuel Macron visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020. Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

This is why the personal and partisan composition of the cabinet is so important. It will determine the prime minister’s ability to pass vital reforms that are a prerequisite for obtaining aid from donor states. Nor is this the only obstacle Hariri faces. The United States has made it extremely clear that it won’t accept a cabinet in which Hezbollah members sit. France, in contrast, has made no such demand; it distinguishes between the organization’s political and military wings, and it understands that without Hezbollah, there’s no chance of forming a government.

But America is the one that controls the tap of international aid. Without its approval, there’s no chance that the International Monetary Fund will give Lebanon the $10 billion loan it has requested. French President Emmanuel Macron was supposed to pay his third visit to Lebanon this month to try to work a miracle and spur the government’s formation.

But now he has come down with the coronavirus, which apparently saved him from a failed visit. His level of optimism was evident from the gloomy metaphor used by his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who this week compared Lebanon’s collapse to the sinking of the Titanic, but minus the music. 

Consequently, both in France and among Lebanon’s political elite, all eyes are on Washington and Joe Biden’s entry into the White House next month. In the optimistic scenario, Biden will begin the process of returning America to the nuclear agreement with Iran, and this would reduce the pressure on Hezbollah, or at least lead it to waive some of its political demands, thereby by enabling Hariri to form a government and save the country.

The question is whether Biden’s attitude toward Hezbollah, and that of Congress, will be affected by the nuclear agreement and the resumption of negotiations with Iran. It’s worth recalling that Barack Obama, Biden’s former boss, refrained from attacking Syria when he was president for fear that doing so would undermine his administration’s negotiations with Iran over the nuclear deal.

It’s not clear whether Biden will rely on this precedent and adopt similar tactics or continue the policy of heavy pressure on Lebanon and Hezbollah regardless of what happens with Iran. 

A man with a cardboard cut-out of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, and former Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, hung by Lebanese protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020.Credit: AFP

Buying time

These calculations are preoccupying the Lebanese leadership, which is trying to buy time until Biden takes office. Consequently, the formation of the government will apparently wait until after the festivities in Washington. 

For the Lebanese public, however, every day that passes with no government and no realistic economic program reduces the chances of rebuilding their lives, or even of buying staple products at reasonable prices, obtaining medications, getting vaccinated against the coronavirus or regular schooling. 

The central bank announced that its foreign currency reserves suffice to import staple products only for another two months, as its coffers have been emptying at the rate of around $1 billion a month. The bank’s declared red line that it won’t go below is $17 billion, since that constitutes 15 percent of all Lebanese deposits in Lebanese banks. But even that reserve might have to be used to fund essential needs, in which case the banking system would face a real threat of collapse.

Some banks have already decided to get out of Lebanon and move their business to other countries. Meanwhile, on the central bank’s orders, Lebanese foreign currency accounts have been imprisoned in the banks, and the owners have no ability to withdraw from them. 
The caretaker government is now mulling a substantial cut in subsidies for staple products, which has already increased by 100 percent or more over the last year.

And on top of all this, there’s the coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people and is likely to force the cancelation of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. This is normally a peak tourism period from which tens of thousands of families earn their entire year’s income. 

Hotels are at zero occupancy, while restaurants are demanding that the government allow them to open and control the crowds by themselves. But the problem is that nobody is coming to Lebanon. The ski season, which normally, draws a lot of tourists from the Arab Gulf states, will open soon, but this year, there will apparently be no customers.

Lebanon hasn’t yet obtained coronavirus vaccines, and according to the prime minister, the first vaccines are likely to arrive only in mid-February. If it used to be said that Lebanon runs on fumes, it now seems that even the last fumes are evaporating.

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