FOR MANY Lebanese, the scenes in Beirut on October 14th harked back to their country’s darkest days. Gunmen crouched behind cars and fired wildly at apartment blocks or rushed out from cover to launch rocket-propelled grenades. Frantic parents searched for safe routes to collect children from school. Residents cowered in hallways and bathrooms. The guns fell silent after a few hours, but the streets were left carpeted with broken glass, the buildings pockmarked with bullet holes.
At least seven people were killed and dozens injured in the worst violence in Lebanon’s capital since 2008. It centred on a rally organised by the two main Shia parties, Hizbullah and Amal, to protest against the investigation into last year’s catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port. Soon after the rally began, snipers fired into its midst from a nearby building. Hizbullah and Amal, which are both militias as well as political parties, blamed this “ambush” on the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party led by Samir Geagea, a warlord-turned-politician. His party denies it was involved (there is no evidence yet to prove it was).
Ostensibly the protest was about the “politicisation” of the probe. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, says the lead investigator is biased. His allies mumble darkly about an American-backed conspiracy. This is mostly nonsense. The investigator, Tarek al-Bitar, is a judge with a clean reputation. He has won support from families of the 218 people killed in the explosion. Pressed for evidence of a foreign conspiracy, supporters of Hizbullah and Amal offer little beyond the fact that some American congressmen have praised Mr Bitar.
It would be more accurate to call this a protest against the investigation itself: a rally for impunity, of which Lebanon has a long history. An amnesty law passed in 1991 meant that almost no one was held accountable for atrocities during the 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Since then politicians, security officials and intellectuals have been assassinated, with few consequences for their killers.
Mr Bitar, by most accounts, takes his job seriously. He has summoned high-ranking officials, including a former prime minister and cabinet members. On October 12th he issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister from Amal, after the latter failed to turn up for questioning. Hours later a court ordered Mr Bitar to halt his work pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Mr Khalil and a colleague.
The investigator’s opponents have ample reason to want him gone. The explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had arrived at the port in 2013 and was stored improperly. Many senior officials were aware of the stuff but did nothing to make it safe. Amal is known to wield influence at the notoriously corrupt port. Some Lebanese believe Hizbullah wanted to use the ammonium nitrate for bomb-making, either at home or in neighbouring Syria (a claim that is so far unproven). Both parties are members of the ruling coalition and see a serious investigation as a threat to the political order.
They have already removed one judge. Mr Bitar’s predecessor was dismissed in February, in part because his own house was damaged in the blast. This supposedly made him too biased to oversee the work—an absurd standard that would disqualify about one in seven Beirutis (more than 85,000 homes were damaged).
For the civil-war generation, the fighting on October 14th carried grim echoes of their childhoods. Even the location, Tayouneh, was resonant: a former front line between Christian and Shia neighbourhoods, near the site of a massacre in 1975 that is widely considered the war’s starting point. For most of Lebanon’s political factions, however, a renewed war would be a suicide mission. Hizbullah is by far the country’s strongest force, better-equipped than even the army. None of its rivals has the muscle to challenge it, nor do they enjoy the level of foreign support they did decades ago.
If war seems unlikely, though, so does stability. Lebanon defaulted on its foreign-currency debt in March 2020 and has since slipped into an economic crisis that the World Bank ranks as one of the worst anywhere since the mid-1800s. The Lebanese pound, long pegged at 1,500 to the dollar, now trades at around 21,000; annual inflation exceeds 100%. Earlier this month the national electricity grid went offline for a day when its two main power plants ran out of fuel. There has been no progress on restructuring debt, a financial-rescue plan or an agreement with the IMF.
This endless crisis affects everyone—including the impoverished, demoralised security forces. The interior minister said in a television interview this month that more than 240 police officers had walked off the job. The army does not release statistics, but desertions there are thought to number in the thousands. Other soldiers have side jobs to feed their families, since conscripts now earn less than the equivalent of $60 a month (compared with $800 before the currency collapsed).
For decades, Lebanon’s leaders have framed justice and peace as opposing choices, where one is only possible without the other. The campaign against Mr Bitar, and the deadly violence that followed, underscores that they have in fact provided neither: a state too corrupt to prosecute its criminals, and too dysfunctional to protect its citizens.