This is probably one of those few times when a compromise done “the Lebanese way” causes such an outcry as to achieve the very opposite of its original aim. The barter which Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai reportedly agreed to on Tuesday — as a way out of a crisis ignited when Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea was summoned to appear before the Military Court in connection with the Oct. 14 clashes in Beirut’s Tayyouneh area — sparked a storm of criticism, mainly within the Christian community.
The formula consists of simultaneously breaking the deadlock in the Beirut port investigation, which the Shiite Amal and Hezbollah political parties seek to torpedo, and in the investigation into the clashes that broke out between Christians and Shiites at the Ain al-Rummaneh-Chiyah-Tayyouneh crossroads.
However, this formula is not appealing to the Aug. 4 blast victims’ families, who stress their categorical rejection of the case being taken out of the hands of investigating judge Tarek Bitar at the Court of Justice, who for them has so far demonstrated courage and integrity in a case that has taken on political ramifications.
It also did not please many Christians, who regarded it as a form of yielding to the Shiite duo, which is fiercely defending its associates implicated in the port blast probe.
The middle-ground solution that was reportedly cooked up behind the scenes is the following: the Supreme Council would decide on the legal responsibility of the ministers. This would practically mean burying the political side of the investigation. This idea, which Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri championed, was eventually endorsed by the Maronite Church’s head. In return, the prelate proposed that those accused of taking part in the Tayyouneh clashes would be brought to justice to calm the situation and leave all of the parties’ leaders — including Samir Geagea — out of the matter.
However, in a tweet on Sunday, Sejean Azzi, a former labor minister and advisor to Rai, wrote that the patriarch “rejected any settlement, compromise or bargain between the probes into the Tayyouneh incidents and port blast” and that “no right is higher than the right of the port martyrs and their families.”
Ironically, this initiative which was obviously taken unilaterally was not intended to please the LF leader, let alone his popular base, which presumably did not need the patriarch to defend him. Circles close to the Christian party do not understand why the prelate threw the Shiite duo a line when the LF had achieved a public relations triumph from the Tayyouneh incident, which allowed the party to position itself as the only one capable of standing up to Hezbollah.
Officially, the LF holds fast to its initial position.
“We are against any attempt to take the investigation out of Tarek Bitar’s hands. We said it and we reiterate it: the two investigations into the Tayyouneh [incidents] and the port are completely different things, and each must take its normal course provided that they are not politicized from here and there,” says a party official.
This position was already relayed by the head of state, Michel Aoun, who, after having initially supported the Maronite prelate’s proposal on condition of knowing its terms, backed out after sensing that it would be unpopular and would have repercussions in the street. It was the Free Patriotic Movement head Gebran Bassil who immediately expressed this position in a tweet on Wednesday: “We refuse to disguise the truth in the biggest blast that Lebanon and the world have witnessed so as to exonerate a criminal.”
The deal concluded between Rai and Berri may, however, seem a priori acceptable in the eyes of all those who bring into the equation civil peace — the return to some normalcy, including resuming cabinet meetings, which have been suspended since the clashes in Tayyouneh.
This is the argument that the circles defending the patriarch put forward. They believe he is keen on sparing the country additional disasters, including chaos and the risk of a civil war.
“The patriarch’s move is simply driven by social considerations, mainly to enable the government to resume its activities and find solutions to a most critical situation,” a source in the Church says. However, this justification has little support in public opinion.
“He is doing this to ensure justice and civil peace. He simply found a solution to the division caused by Judge Bitar’s work,” testifies Céline, 51, a Maronite who lives in Jamhour.
While the patriarch’s intention is understandable to some extent, it outraged many officials of the various parties, who perceive it as a dangerous faux pas that risks setting a precedent. They argue that a figure of the rank of the head of the Church is supposed to remain above the fray and limit his opinion to the fundamentals of politics without meddling in this way in legal issues and bartering.
“One should know that the port case has become a comprehensive issue that concerns the Lebanese public opinion as a whole, and the Christians in particular. How can the Church’s representative take the place of public opinion in concocting any agreement under the table?” a political advisor close to the Church who declined to be named says.
What irritates the advisor most, he said, is that it was not originally even the patriarch’s idea, rather, it was that of the head of the legislature, who “tricked” him. All information aligns: the Maronite prelate’s meetings with officials were planned before the outcry over the summoning of the LF leader.
Even within the Maronite church, some bishops said in confidence that they do not understand why the patriarch acted in this way.
In Ain al-Rummaneh, Christians even accuse him of being a “pawn.”
“Amal and Hezbollah are the most armed in the country. Perhaps the patriarch’s weakness is directly in line with the balance of power on the ground,” says Félix, a 41-year-old Maronite, in front of his bullet-ridden building located on the Civil War-era demarcation line.
Although Berri was keen to give this “barter” a constitutional cover — according to him, the former ministers in question must be judged by the Supreme Council as stipulated by the Constitution and not by Tarek Bitar — the agreement reached with the patriarch remains, in the eyes of many observers, a dangerous interference in judicial work and a blow to the separation of powers. “Justice is the last bulwark of this country. Above all, the patriarch must not be the gravedigger,” warns the above-mentioned advisor.
Those who are concerned the most, i.e. the families of the Aug. 4, 2020, port blast victims, rejected this proposal as soon as it was announced. In a statement, the families of the more than 218 victims and more than 3,000 wounded insisted that “all of the accused, without any exception, need to appear before the Court of Justice.” They denounced “the new compromises that place the blood of victims and martyrs on the negotiations and bargaining table.”
This position reflects the opinion of many Christians, who consider it an insult to place the two probes on an equal footing. They argue that the magnitude and circumstances of the port explosion and the responsibilities involved cannot be compared in any way with the clashes that occurred in Tayyouneh as part of a demonstration that aimed to prevent justice from being done in the port case.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.