Increasing political tensions over a judicial investigation into last year’s Beirut Port Blast threaten to throw Lebanon into yet another political crisis, putting Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s new government to the test as it tries to pull the country out of economic disaster.
Judge Tarek Bitar’s efforts to hold high authorities accountable for suspected wrongdoing are facing rising political opposition more than a year after an explosion blasted through Beirut, killing more than 200 people.
After a heated session on Tuesday, ministers affiliated with the politicians Bitar has wanted to question are set to urge for his dismissal at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
It’s a major distraction that observers fear might undermine Mikati, who took office last month after more than a year of battling over cabinet seats as Lebanon plunged deeper into one of the world’s worst economic crises.
The issue has also highlighted the influence of Hezbollah, a heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi’ite militia that has called for Bitar’s dismissal, accusing him of conducting a politicized investigation targeting specific individuals.
When asked whether any ministers could resign during an interview on Tuesday, the most senior politician Bitar has attempted to question, Former Fnance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, said all options were open for political escalation.
Khalil is Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s right-hand man, the state’s most senior Shi’ite and a close Hezbollah ally. According to Khalil, the investigation’s direction could lead Lebanon “towards civil violence.”
During times of political strife, Hezbollah and its Shi’ite ally Amal have pulled their ministers out of government, a move that would torpedo the Sunni-led cabinet by removing Shi’ite representation.
Mikati has previously said Lebanon could not bear the loss of a second judge after the first investigator was removed in February when a court accepted a complaint questioning his impartiality.
Mikati’s priority is reviving IMF talks to save Lebanon. But he doesn’t have long, with elections due next spring.
Heiko Wimmen of Crisis Group said the row would “sap energy and it also makes (Mikati) look weak”. “It puts a huge question mark, or adds one, to the doubts that already everyone has concerning the viability of this government.”
Hezbollah was “showing its brute influence and force and that definitely reflects badly on Mikati government”, added Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The government does not have the authority to remove Bitar but could revoke a previous decision that transferred the probe to the judicial council, said Nizar Saghieh, head of the Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organization. This would be a major assault on “the separation of powers”.
Foreign countries that Lebanon hopes to get aid from have demanded an independent investigation into the blast, which was caused by a massive amount of improperly stored ammonium nitrate.
The US State Department has accused Hezbollah of intimidating the judiciary, which it considers a terrorist organization.
All of the former officials Bitar has questioned about possible negligence deny guilt. Hassan Diab, the prime minister at the time of the blast, is among them.
Bitar’s critics claim he is violating the constitution by pursuing senior officials who should be subjected to a separate process reserved for presidents and ministers.