Beirut Blast probe, instigation of sectarian violence, setting the field for the 2022 elections

Clashes between political partisans on the streets of Beirut underline how a lack of accountability for the 2020 port disaster is feeding into revivified sectarian tensions.

By Indi Phillips

On 12 October, prosecutors released two arrest warrants for former ministers in the Lebanese government, Ghazi Zaitar and Al Hassan Khalil, in connection with the deadly 2020 Port of Beirut Blast. In response, members of the Shi’a majority Amal and Hezbollah parties called on supporters to march through Badaro and Ein er Rummene to the Palais de Justice area of Beirut, on 14 October, to demand the withdrawal of the warrants. Hundreds of young men poured onto the main road toward Tayouneh chanting ‘Shi’a, Shi’a’ as they ran. Gunfire then erupted, triggering mass panic and rioting.

Beirut is still a city carved up into areas defined by their ruling militia, remnants of a patchwork territorial distribution from the Lebanese Civil War. So when supporters of Hezbollah and Amal ran through the streets of Ein er Rummane and Badaro, areas held by the Lebanese Forces (LF), the second largest Christian militia and political party in the country, chanting ‘Shi’a, Shi’a’, this call was both a political and territorial challenge.

The first shots were fired before the protesters arrived at their destination. Video footage revealed that the first shot was fired by a Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldier who shot point blank at a protester. After this, snipers began shooting from rooftops; Amal and Hezbollah members responded with machine guns and rocket propelled grenade launchers. The shooting lasted over four hours and resulted in seven deaths and 32 injuries. As of this writing, there is still no evidence as to who the snipers were. Amal and Hezbollah have publicly accused Samir Geagea, leader of the LF, of sending his fighters to target the protesters, though this has been denied by the LF leader.

The violence has helped elevate the profile of the LF. The LF are in direct competition with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the largest Christian political party, represented by President Michel Aoun in parliament for the upcoming March 2022 elections. The FPM is allied with Hezbollah who has called for the cancellation of the disaster probe while the FPM is supportive of the probe. This allows the LF to present itself as less corrupt than its rivals and committed to uncovering the truth of what led to the events of the disaster one year ago.

Representatives of both Amal and Hezbollah have threatened retaliation for the deaths and injuries sustained on 14 October. A retaliatory attack on the LF is widely anticipated. Although the majority of deaths and injuries sustained were of Amal supporters, Hezbollah officials have indicated that they regard their Amal comrades’ deaths as though they were their own casualties. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has since played up the attack to his benefit. The party has been losing supporters and funding for some time as their major backer, Iran, is floundering in its own economic crisis. Hezbollah has become underfunded and weakened as a result, and has been perceived as such publicly. The latest clashes showed Hezbollah as warriors and harked back to their creation and raison d’etre as the protectors of the Shi’a community. On the other hand, Hezbollah’s readiness to carry out guerilla warfare in densely populated Beirut played nicely into the hands of LF, allowing them to gain ground as the only Lebanese Christian party who are representing a peaceful political alternative.

The events of 14 October have created a platform for Hezbollah to display its arsenal and combat power, while drawing a red line for further investigations of the port explosion, in which Hezbollah, along with nearly every other centre of entrenched power in the country, is implicated. The spectre of increased sectarian tensions has drawn attention away from other issues to focus on the unstable security situation. While the collapse of the economy remains a motivating force for all voters, the risk of further sectarian conflict raises painful memories of past civil strife going into 2022.

Indi Phillips is a Lebanon-based political and security risk analyst covering Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

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