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Lebanon Violence Explained: Sectarianism, a Wrecked Economy & 2020 Beirut Blast

A non-sectarian tragedy's investigation is being interfered with by Lebanon's Muslim-Christian divide.

Updated
Explainers
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Beirut was rocked by violence of a scale last witnessed over a decade ago.&nbsp;</p></div>
i

In what turned out to be Beirut’s most violent clashes in over a decade, at least six people were killed on Thursday, 14 October, amidst firing between Shiite groups – Hezbollah and Amal Movement – and the Lebanese Armed Forces, Reuters reported.

Additionally, the clashes allegedly involved the Christian Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party whose militia fought in the Lebanese Civil War.

A protest had been organised by Hezbollah, a militant group which is also one of the most powerful political entities in Lebanon.

Protesters were demanding the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar as the adjudicator leading the investigation of the August 2020 port explosion that killed more than 200 people in Beirut.

Bitar been accused by Hezbollah of running a biased and politicised trial against prominent Muslim figures in Lebanon.

The demonstrations on Thursday took a violent turn when protesters were targeted by sniper fire, and they then shot back with AK47s and grenades.

Lebanese troops were deployed but the violence escalated.

Hezbollah claims that their members were fired at by right-wing Christians, reported The Guardian.

Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, denied the charges and condemned the violence.

Regardless of who started the firing, Thursday’s violence exemplifies the situation of Lebanese politics and society – sectarian divisions, a weak state, corruption, and militia violence.

In this explainer, we untangle Lebanon’s recent past and elucidate how it is linked to the present.

What are the sectarian divides? What has been the state of Lebanon’s politics after the civil war and why is the economy in shambles? Why has there been so much controversy around the Beirut blast? Read on.

Lebanon Violence Explained: Sectarianism, a Wrecked Economy & 2020 Beirut Blast

  1. 1. Sectarianism in Lebanon

    As of 2021, 61.1 percent of Lebanon's population is Muslim (30.6 percent Sunni and 30.5 percent Shia), 33.7 percent is Christian, and 5.2 percent is Druze, along with a tiny population of Jews, Hindus, Baháʼís, and Buddhists, according to the CIA World Factbook.

    Therefore, three religious and sectarian communities have dominated the Lebanese Republic since its independence from France in 1943 – the Christians who were in the majority at the time, (dominated by Maronite Christians), the Sunni Muslims, and the Shia Muslims.

    According to the 1943 National Pact, political power was to be allocated along sectarian lines based on the demographic findings in the 1932 census.

    The presidency would go to a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim would be the prime minister, and the role of Parliament Speaker would be allotted to a Shia Muslim.

    Seats in the Parliament were to be divided between Christians and Muslims in a 6:5 ratio.

    However, the Constitution stipulated that Parliament could hold the cabinet accountable, but not the President, who therefore possessed a huge amount of executive authority.

    Key positions in the government were also allotted to the Maronites.

    The rising tensions in inequality in distribution of powers among the Christians and the Muslims, and the changing demography that increased the Muslims population (especially due to large scale migration of fleeing Palestinians) in Lebanon culminated into the 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War.

    Expand
  2. 2. The Lebanese Civil War

    The civil war that raged through Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 merits a discussion that is beyond the ambit of this article, but its consequences are inextricably linked to the problems that plague the Lebanese political system that exists today.

    It was a multi-faceted war, involving the Christians (the Lebanese Front and other militia groups), the Muslims (the Lebanese National Movement, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Hezbollah among others), the Lebanese Armed Forces, and external powers including Israel, Iran, Syria, the US, and France.

    Overall, there was no clear winner of the war, and the Taif Agreement that acted as the peace treaty, reaffirmed the sectarian arrangement of the Lebanese government, but with some important changes.

    The parliament that used to be divided between the Christians and the Muslims in a 6:5 ratio was now divided in a 1:1 ratio.

    Ironically, the Taif Agreement, which was supposed to reduce sectarian conflicts, further intensified divisions that killed any hopes that the Lebanese people had from their government for post-war reconstruction and stability.

    The role of militias like Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in Lebanese politics and society significantly increased, exacerbating both internal and external tensions that contributed to further violence and crisis (like the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War).

    Expand
  3. 3. Economic Collapse and Public Anger

    Unsuccessful economic measures by successive administrations have wrecked the Lebanese economy, with governments failing to render basic services like public healthcare, electricity, water, and internet to the Lebanese people, BBC reported.

    In fact, the Lebanese government was so short of revenue that it even proposed taxing WhatsApp calls in 2019 but backtracked after widespread public outrage that manifested in protests in which thousands participated regardless of their sectarian affiliation.

    The COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to the deterioration of the economy.

    Since 2019, the Lebanese pound's value has reduced by 90 percent, and inflation has led to a 4x increase in the prices of consumer goods, as per the statistics provided by the Lebanese government.

    Rampant corruption and inefficient policies have drastically increased the debt crisis, and in March 2020, Lebanon defaulted for the first time, being unable to repay a $1.2 billion loan, The Hindu reported.

    In fact, a 2021 World Bank report classifies Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis as one present in the list of top 10, and maybe even top 3, worst economic crises since the mid-nineteenth century.

    Already on its knees due to the economic crisis, Lebanon was rocked by an explosion on 4 August 2020 at the Port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people and rendering around 3,00,000 homeless.

    It is this explosion and the investigation surrounding it that have caused the unrest that Lebanon witnessed last week.

    Expand
  4. 4. The Explosion and the Controversies Surrounding It

    The first judge to lead the investigation into the explosion was Judge Fadi Sawan, a Maronite Christian. He investigated the explosion for months before being removed in February 2021, Reuters reported.

    The decision by a Lebanese court to relieve him of his duties was taken after the court received by a complaint by two ex-ministers.

    Judge Sawan had accused Hassan Diab, the caretaker prime minister, and three ex-ministers with criminal negligence that contributed to the explosion, The New York Times reported.

    In response to these accusations, prominent Sunni and Shia figures like former prime ministers, the Parliament Speaker, and even the leader of Hezbollah, argued that the accused men had legal immunity and that the biased Christian judge had overstepped his boundaries.

    Sawan was eventually removed and replaced by Tarek Bitar, who also comes from a Christian family.

    The controversial replacement was criticised by family members of the blast victims, and by human rights activists.

    Aya Majzoub of Human Rights Watch tweeted that the "removal of Fadi Sawwan from the #BeirutBlast case because of a complaint filed by two politicians he charged makes a mockery of justice and is an insult to the victims of the blast & the #Lebanon public."

    Expand
  5. 5. An Increasingly Volatile Environment 

    Currently, judge Bitar is investigating ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and ex-public works minister Ghazi Zaiter, BBC reported.

    Both belong to the Amal Movement, which is closely allied to Hezbollah.

    Bitar’s decision to probe Khalil and Zaiter has angered Shia Muslims. Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised address, accused Bitar of “picking certain officials and certain people” and that “the bias is clear”, Reuters reported.

    Khalil and Zaiter filed complaints against Bitar, only to be rejected by the Court of Cassation, Lebanon’s apex court.

    In the backdrop of these events, demonstrations were held by Shia groups to demand the removal of Bitar.

    Protesters, who blame the Christian Lebanese Forces for initiating the clashes, were fired upon and the Lebanese Army failed to control the violence that ended up taking at least six lives.

    The atmosphere surrounding the Beirut explosion seems to becoming more and more volatile with each passing day.

    Only time will tell whether Bitar gets to continue with his investigation as sectarianism continues to increasingly interfere in the aftermath of a non-sectarian tragedy.

    (With inputs from Reuters, the New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Hindu, and the the CIA World Factbook.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

Sectarianism in Lebanon

As of 2021, 61.1 percent of Lebanon's population is Muslim (30.6 percent Sunni and 30.5 percent Shia), 33.7 percent is Christian, and 5.2 percent is Druze, along with a tiny population of Jews, Hindus, Baháʼís, and Buddhists, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Therefore, three religious and sectarian communities have dominated the Lebanese Republic since its independence from France in 1943 – the Christians who were in the majority at the time, (dominated by Maronite Christians), the Sunni Muslims, and the Shia Muslims.

According to the 1943 National Pact, political power was to be allocated along sectarian lines based on the demographic findings in the 1932 census.

The presidency would go to a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim would be the prime minister, and the role of Parliament Speaker would be allotted to a Shia Muslim.

Seats in the Parliament were to be divided between Christians and Muslims in a 6:5 ratio.

However, the Constitution stipulated that Parliament could hold the cabinet accountable, but not the President, who therefore possessed a huge amount of executive authority.

Key positions in the government were also allotted to the Maronites.

The rising tensions in inequality in distribution of powers among the Christians and the Muslims, and the changing demography that increased the Muslims population (especially due to large scale migration of fleeing Palestinians) in Lebanon culminated into the 15-year-long Lebanese Civil War.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Lebanese Civil War

The civil war that raged through Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 merits a discussion that is beyond the ambit of this article, but its consequences are inextricably linked to the problems that plague the Lebanese political system that exists today.

It was a multi-faceted war, involving the Christians (the Lebanese Front and other militia groups), the Muslims (the Lebanese National Movement, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Hezbollah among others), the Lebanese Armed Forces, and external powers including Israel, Iran, Syria, the US, and France.

Overall, there was no clear winner of the war, and the Taif Agreement that acted as the peace treaty, reaffirmed the sectarian arrangement of the Lebanese government, but with some important changes.

The parliament that used to be divided between the Christians and the Muslims in a 6:5 ratio was now divided in a 1:1 ratio.

Ironically, the Taif Agreement, which was supposed to reduce sectarian conflicts, further intensified divisions that killed any hopes that the Lebanese people had from their government for post-war reconstruction and stability.

The role of militias like Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in Lebanese politics and society significantly increased, exacerbating both internal and external tensions that contributed to further violence and crisis (like the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War).

Economic Collapse and Public Anger

Unsuccessful economic measures by successive administrations have wrecked the Lebanese economy, with governments failing to render basic services like public healthcare, electricity, water, and internet to the Lebanese people, BBC reported.

In fact, the Lebanese government was so short of revenue that it even proposed taxing WhatsApp calls in 2019 but backtracked after widespread public outrage that manifested in protests in which thousands participated regardless of their sectarian affiliation.

The COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to the deterioration of the economy.

Since 2019, the Lebanese pound's value has reduced by 90 percent, and inflation has led to a 4x increase in the prices of consumer goods, as per the statistics provided by the Lebanese government.

Rampant corruption and inefficient policies have drastically increased the debt crisis, and in March 2020, Lebanon defaulted for the first time, being unable to repay a $1.2 billion loan, The Hindu reported.

In fact, a 2021 World Bank report classifies Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis as one present in the list of top 10, and maybe even top 3, worst economic crises since the mid-nineteenth century.

Already on its knees due to the economic crisis, Lebanon was rocked by an explosion on 4 August 2020 at the Port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people and rendering around 3,00,000 homeless.

It is this explosion and the investigation surrounding it that have caused the unrest that Lebanon witnessed last week.

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The Explosion and the Controversies Surrounding It

The first judge to lead the investigation into the explosion was Judge Fadi Sawan, a Maronite Christian. He investigated the explosion for months before being removed in February 2021, Reuters reported.

The decision by a Lebanese court to relieve him of his duties was taken after the court received by a complaint by two ex-ministers.

Judge Sawan had accused Hassan Diab, the caretaker prime minister, and three ex-ministers with criminal negligence that contributed to the explosion, The New York Times reported.

In response to these accusations, prominent Sunni and Shia figures like former prime ministers, the Parliament Speaker, and even the leader of Hezbollah, argued that the accused men had legal immunity and that the biased Christian judge had overstepped his boundaries.

Sawan was eventually removed and replaced by Tarek Bitar, who also comes from a Christian family.

The controversial replacement was criticised by family members of the blast victims, and by human rights activists.

Aya Majzoub of Human Rights Watch tweeted that the "removal of Fadi Sawwan from the #BeirutBlast case because of a complaint filed by two politicians he charged makes a mockery of justice and is an insult to the victims of the blast & the #Lebanon public."

An Increasingly Volatile Environment 

Currently, judge Bitar is investigating ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and ex-public works minister Ghazi Zaiter, BBC reported.

Both belong to the Amal Movement, which is closely allied to Hezbollah.

Bitar’s decision to probe Khalil and Zaiter has angered Shia Muslims. Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised address, accused Bitar of “picking certain officials and certain people” and that “the bias is clear”, Reuters reported.

Khalil and Zaiter filed complaints against Bitar, only to be rejected by the Court of Cassation, Lebanon’s apex court.

In the backdrop of these events, demonstrations were held by Shia groups to demand the removal of Bitar.

Protesters, who blame the Christian Lebanese Forces for initiating the clashes, were fired upon and the Lebanese Army failed to control the violence that ended up taking at least six lives.

The atmosphere surrounding the Beirut explosion seems to becoming more and more volatile with each passing day.

Only time will tell whether Bitar gets to continue with his investigation as sectarianism continues to increasingly interfere in the aftermath of a non-sectarian tragedy.

(With inputs from Reuters, the New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Hindu, and the the CIA World Factbook.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Published: 
Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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