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Analysis: Street battles in Beirut could mean even darker times

BEIRUT (AP) – The most powerful men in Lebanese politics have been in command for decades, some since the early 1970s. They have survived civil war, assassinations, uprisings and other unrest, s clinging to power for decades in a turbulent and ruthless region.

Now they are in a desperate struggle to cling to positions and wealth as Lebanon suffers blow after blow, grappling with one of the world’s worst economic collapses in decades and the aftermath of an explosion that ravaged the capital a year ago, killing more than 215 people.

The shootings that raged for hours in the streets of Beirut this week were the latest manifestation of the will of members of the country’s ruling class to fight for their political survival at all costs.

Unhappy with the direction of the investigation into last year’s port explosion, they have closed ranks to ensure they are not affected by the fallout.

On Thursday, the Hezbollah militant group and the Amal Movement staged a protest demanding the dismissal of the judge who was leading the investigation. Armed, they marched through the predominantly Christian neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital, some shouting “Shiite, Shiite!

Hezbollah and Amal, two Shiite parties that fought pitched battles in the 1980s but are now close allies, blamed the Lebanese Forces – a Christian party that had a powerful militia during the 1975-90 civil war – to have opened fire first. The Lebanese Forces denied it, attributing the violence to Hezbollah’s incitement to his supporters against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the port investigation.

The two sides clashed for hours, once again demonstrating to the nation that the Lebanese must choose: justice and accountability, or civil peace.

For many, it illustrated why Lebanon is trapped in today’s quagmire.

“They play people against each other, then they sit at a table together to make deals,” said Hanan Raad, whose sister-in-law was killed in the fighting on Thursday. A mother of five, Mariam Farhat was hit by a sniper bullet while sitting by the balcony of her second-floor apartment, her family said on Friday.

The investigation into the explosion of the port is at the heart of the current tensions, as is the culture of impunity in Lebanon, in which the justice system has never attacked power, despite widespread corruption and crimes.

That is until the August 2020 explosion in the Port of Beirut draws international attention to the massive corruption and neglect that underlies it. Days after the explosion, documents emerged that several senior politicians and security chiefs were aware of the hundreds of tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate randomly stored in a port warehouse and did nothing about it. .

Entrenched politicians who argue and bicker over just about everything else, have closed ranks to undermine the investigation.

Rival politicians including former prime minister Saad Hariri, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and several religious figures have launched a campaign to discredit Bitar, accusing him of bias.

When the judge began summoning officials, they used parliamentary immunity and various court challenges to avoid having to show up for questioning.

Defiantly, the 46-year-old judge issued arrest warrants, notably against former finance and public works ministers, both members of Amal and close allies of Hezbollah.

Thursday’s street clashes further cast doubt on both the future of the investigation and the possibility that Bitar could continue to lead it.

“We are dealing with a new equation: either Tarek Bitar is leaving, or the country will be ruined,” said Youssef Diab, political scientist. “We are faced with this new and dangerous equation.”

Establishment parties have collectively worked to block any serious opposition and attempted reform that could harm them, observers say. They hampered a forensic audit of the country’s central bank, a key demand by the international community to restore confidence in the crisis-stricken Middle Eastern nation, protecting the bank’s longtime governor even as he faces corruption charges in Switzerland and France and blatant mismanagement charges. at home.

The sectarian power-sharing system in Lebanon has proven impossible to break down. The protests were quashed. The warlords established themselves as the protectors of their sect, bestowing favors on their followers.

A revolt against the status quo would mean breaking the network of sectarian patronage, cultivated by the ruling elite and which benefits many members of the divided population. Many Lebanese politicians have large audiences, even blind ones. They are quick to blame other factions for the country’s myriad of problems and eagerly fuel fears among their supporters that another sect may take power over them.

Hundreds of thousands of streets crowded in Beirut and across Lebanon in late 2019 during some of the biggest protests the country has seen. For several months, the protests united an often divided audience in revolt against entrenched leaders who brought the economy to the brink of bankruptcy.

The protests were met with violence, arrests and intimidation, and eventually fizzled out.

Some believe that next spring’s election will bring some change. But the opposition does not have a viable political program or candidates capable of challenging the political elite. And since the economic crisis has plunged three quarters of the population into poverty, buying votes will be much cheaper.

With pent-up anger among many Lebanese, growing sectarian tensions and a political class desperate to cling to their privileged role, a descent into violence becomes even more possible.

Michael Young, editor-in-chief at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said there could be serious consequences if Hezbollah and Amal succeed in derailing the port investigation.

“The sudden escalation of violence could trigger new developments in Lebanon that would lead to the cancellation of the elections and drag the country into a much darker time than the one that exists today,” Young wrote on Friday in Diwan, the Carnegie’s Mideast blog.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Zeina Karam, Associated Press news director for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, has been covering the Middle East since 1996. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/zkaram .

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