Lebanon was plunged into an all-too-familiar turmoil on Thursday, October 14.
To fully understand the unrest unfolding in Lebanon today, its history must be explored. According to Britannica, civil war in Lebanon erupted in 1975, following heightened tensions between the country’s four major religious sects: Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Lebanon’s proximity to Israel, Syria and the Mediterranean Sea allowed it to become a hub of different cultures and religions, all residing under French colonial rule until 1943. The civil war was fought under the influence from outside Syria and Israel. , as well as the growth of ideological movements like Islamic fundamentalism and Arab nationalism.
The civil war ended in 1990, after the American intervention and the Syrian and Israeli occupation, with the implementation of the Taif Accord. According to Brittanica, the deal asserted Lebanon’s power in the southern region of the country, occupied by Israel at the time, and gave political power to a half-Muslim, half-Christian cabinet over a president. He also sought to disarm and dissolve all militia groups operating in Lebanon, but this ultimately failed. Even after the end of the war and the implementation of the Taif Accord, there were still cases of heavy bombing, which occurred in 2015 and 2016, linked to ISIS’s influence in the region.
This week’s protests and the violence that followed are a direct result of a massive chemical explosion that occurred on August 4, 2020. According to the Associated Press, the explosion killed at least 170 people and injured some thousands more. The exact cause of the explosion was linked to a reserve of hundreds of metric tons of explosive ammonium nitrate kept in a warehouse for more than six years. According to Human Rights Watch, officials were alerted to this supply of chemicals in 2014 and chose to do nothing, which ultimately led to this horrific accident. This showed the Lebanese people the incompetence of their government. According to the BBC, the explosion, combined with a devastating financial crisis that hit the country in 2019, fuel shortages and the emergence of CO-VID-19, sparked days of violent protests in the capital, Beirut, leading to the resignation of the Lebanese government.
According to the AP, investigations into the explosion have been repeatedly halted due to threats against judges or the refusal of multi-religious elite officials to comply with court orders. According to Reuters, on October 14, Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militant group that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization, allied with Amal, a Shiite group, and marched in Beirut against Tarek Bitar. , the judge currently in charge of the investigation into last year’s explosion.
During the protests, snipers from city rooftops fired at protesters, killing at least six people and injuring more than thirty others. According to Al Jazeera, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, came out and accused the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian political party, of planning the shooting. The Lebanese Forces have denied any involvement. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the investigation into the explosion would continue, despite the gunfire. So far, nine people have been arrested in connection with the street fighting.
The investigation, and in particular the involvement of Tarek Bitar, has troubled the Lebanese government elite, according to France 24. Bitar is the head of Lebanon’s criminal court and has become increasingly popular as he has shown that he would not refrain from indicting the ruling elite, including ex-Prime Minister Hassan Diab. This has troubled Hezbollah, which has elected officials in government who have yet to be charged in the investigation. Wafiq Safa, a senior member of Hezbollah, publicly condemned Bitar, which heightened fears for the judge’s safety.
In the aftermath of the chemical explosion and devastation, the effects worsened in an already ailing country, as an increase in discontent against the multireligious elite and their ability to avoid sanctions for this explosion led to an increase in the demand for legal action against those responsible for the explosion. This investigation and the complaints it has already lodged against powerful officials arouse fear in the major religious institutions that hold power in government. Hezbollah in particular has widely criticized a growing Lebanese movement against the powerful political elite.
It remains to be seen whether this investigation will result in criminal proceedings against important Lebanese elites or members of Hezbollah. But, it will be important to watch as this outcome will likely inform much of Lebanon’s political future regarding not only Hezbollah but all of the country’s elite religious groups.