International diplomatic efforts have increased in the past few weeks as the Saudi and Kuwaiti ambassadors returned to Lebanon, supported by a French policy that focuses on the May 15 parliamentary elections and stability. Part of these diplomatic initiatives is motivated by the Lebanese political post-election scene, mainly the form of the next government and the election of the next president when Michel Aoun’s term closes at the end of the year.
The elections are a significant crossroad in Lebanon, as they will determine the most critical upcoming financial and security decisions in light of the dire economic crisis.
However, Lebanon’s malaise will continue without an independent judicial system and accountability. With Hezbollah’s arms pointed at any Lebanese opposing it, and with the ongoing corruption within state institutions, no parliament could enforce change, recovery, or stability.
In both the 2005 and 2009 parliamentary elections, the Hezbollah-supported March 8 alliance lost but managed to continue ruling with the power of arms and threats. With the lack of liability, that same method continues to this day. Since then, the Beirut port exploded, Lokman Slim assassinated, thefts increased 270 percent between 2019 and 2021, and murder by 82 percent.
No one has been brought to justice in political cases – the port explosion and Slim’s death. On the contrary, many political parties and figures have been working very hard to hamper the investigation and the judicial process. Lebanon will only descend into one worse scenario after another if this continues without international pressure.
The Beirut port case has received international support, mainly to back up Judge Tarek Bitar after Hezbollah’s security chief Wafiq Safa publically threatened him. Still, the focus on elections left the port investigations vulnerable and under serious threat. Just last week, Finance Minister Youssef Khalil – and Amal minister- refused to sign the decree on partial judicial appointments to fill the void at the level of the presidencies of several chambers at the Court of Cessation.
Since February, the port investigation has been on hold because of lawsuits issued against Bitar by two former ministers.
The Court of Cessation is responsible for determining the next steps – either accept or reject these lawsuits. However, with planned new appointments blocked by Khalil, the course of justice in the Beirut explosion has been hindered. It is a ruthless delaying tactic, which has come on top of many other attempts since the investigation began.
Minister of Justice Henry Khoury has already signed the decree, and the Finance Minister’s role in such cases is very technical and is usually related to budget issues. But the Amal minister decided not to sign because he could, and except for some public and local media outcry, he does not feel any pressure or responsibility to allow justice to take its course. Only the justice minister, the Supreme Judicial Council, and the cabinet are constitutionally entitled to examine the decree's legitimacy or validity.
Justice, accountability, and the Beirut port victims have disappeared from the current diplomatic discourse. Meanwhile, Amal officials and its leader Nabih Berri are having meetings every day with Gulf and Western officials to discuss elections and post-elections political processes and scenarios.
It is dangerous because the post elections phase looks more significant than the days leading to it, and more pressure needs to be put on Berri and others to help Bitar continue his work.
In the best-case scenario, the opposition groups could only manage to get around ten people to the new parliament, but this is becoming a farfetched scenario, as civil society groups have generally failed to achieve unity. The upcoming elections will barely lead to any change, and the political parties will remain in power.
Instead of investing all diplomatic pressure on elections, the international community needs to save whatever is left of the state institution – to help Lebanon prepare for the worse that is yet to come. One of these small institutional spots is the small space left within the judicial system.
It needs saved because the institutional opening, and public support Bitar symbolizes could be crucial to navigating worrisome scenarios before and after the election.
Suppose France, the Gulf, and other actors working on Lebanon could send a strong message about the importance of accountability for the port explosion and other crimes. In that case, they could not only help secure a path to justice for particular incidents but also bolster a relatively independent part of the judiciary.
Judges might then feel more empowered to offer some protection against any new waves of violence or assassinations that may emerge in the coming months. Maintaining even a tiny space of accountability within one state institution could help restrain the potential social explosion, reduce the risk of violence, and bolster other struggling institutions.
Political compromise is not an option under the current circumstances. Efforts to sideline Bitar would eliminate the only sovereign space left within Lebanon's institutions. Ensuring that the election takes place on time is vital. This is not enough.
However, the international community must also help protect those in Lebanon who dare to stand up to the political establishment, taking steps that shield them from violence, arrests, random interrogations, and threats. Without some level of independence within the judicial system, threats, violence, repression, and assassinations will continue to devour Lebanon.