Beirut violence shows the Taif Agreement is dead
The Beirut Port blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, was the horrific climax to successive failures of the Lebanese state. Last week, as a judicial probe into the oversights that led to the disaster continued to condemn those responsible, violence erupted in the Lebanese capital. Responding to alleged sniping by Maronite Christian militia, armed supporters of Hezbollah and Amal responded with live fire. With children taking refuge under desks at school, the army back on the streets, and a curfew in most of the capital, the scenes were an uncomfortable reminder of Lebanon’s sectarian fault lines.
Central to the violence is the investigation into the Beirut blast. From the outset, the probe has been hindered by the absence of a functioning government, undue pressure from Hezbollah and allegations of bias against consecutive judges. Leading judge Fadi Sawwan, although a Christian, had a reputation for being nonpartisan and apolitical, but this did not save him from accusations of bias following legal challenges by Lebanese officials belonging to the Shiite Amal movement whom he had previously accused of “negligence.”
The move, widely condemned, led to the appointment of Tarik Bitar, another judge said to be “without bias or affiliation.” However, it was Bitar’s supposed bias that led to this week’s violence after the investigation again highlighted that only an incompetent government could have turned a blind eye to the 2,750 tons of weapons-grade ammonium nitrate stored at the port, and that the militia who guarded the site, unaccountable and loyal to private fiefdoms, were symptomatic of the wider political malaise in Lebanon.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that families of those who died in the blast are no closer to holding those responsible to account, while Bitar, somewhat bizarrely, has had lawsuits filed against him. The former ministers involved have refused to appear in court, with last week’s violence being the culmination of months of pressure by Hezbollah and its allies to halt proceedings.
Just last month, the militant group sought to end the country’s fuel crisis by unilaterally importing diesel from Iran on trucks driven across the Syrian border, without any inspection or duties paid. Najib Mikati’s fledging government ignored this, just as it has ignored the ongoing court case, twice failing to show a united front in support of justice. With the proceedings ending in armed skirmishes, it is likely that this emotionally charged situation will result in the collapse of this government also.
The continued weakness of successive Lebanese governments, coupled with the influence of religious fiefdoms concerned only with retaining populist support at the expense of national unity, has resulted in the shambles at court.
Lebanon’s 15-year civil war led to the deaths of 120,000 people and the displacement of a further million. The bloody struggle continues to shape the country today. The 1989 National Reconciliation Accord, commonly known as the Taif Agreement, secured “mutual coexistence“ between the country’s groups, providing for some semblance of power sharing.
However, in highlighting the “proper political representation” of each group, it inadvertently reinforced the separation between different communities instead of focusing on national unity. Since the “disarmament of all national and non-national militias” has failed to take place, Lebanon is arguably just as divided and unstable as it was three decades ago.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi’s account of last week’s events itself is in dispute. Shiite reports of an ambush by Christian snipers have been rejected by Maronites, who claim that they acted in self-defense as armed militia threatened their community outside the Palace of Justice.
Recent events should have been sufficiently reminiscent of Lebanon’s civil war to encourage some sort of positive change.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The escalation in itself is indicative of the myriad problems Lebanon faces — a weak government, the absence of any form of social justice, and ever stronger militia whose first loyalty is to their communities and not to the progress of Lebanon.
The drama surrounding the blast investigation has shown that the government — when there is one — is unable to impose any sort of oversight and scrutiny. Against a backdrop of state collapse, the inquiry has highlighted a need to find a solution to Lebanon’s woes outside the Taif framework.
Recent events should have been sufficiently reminiscent of the country’s civil war to encourage some sort of positive change. However, even this specter of the bloody conflict does not seem to figure in the calculations of Lebanon’s militia leaders as the country heads closer to the brink.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid