My toddler asked my father about the moon. It was night in Beirut, and the generators were off. My father’s face was lit only by the phone screen. The electricity provider ostensibly follows a schedule but, as he’s a one-man operation, that schedule follows his own: he turns the generator on when he gets up, and off when he goes to bed. The electricity provided by the state is down to a couple of unpredictable hours a day: you have to be home at just the right time to do a load of laundry; private generators don’t give enough power to run a washing machine.
The streets are pitch black at night, dirty during the day. The internet is unreliable. Medicines are scarce – water, too, as autumn fires rage. Prices are extraordinarily high. In September, Hizbullah organised fuel deliveries from Iran, via Syria, in defiance of US sanctions, and without bothering to ask permission from the government – a government formed only a week earlier, thirteen months after the resignation of the previous one.
The first judge appointed to lead the investigation into the explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 was removed on the grounds that he couldn’t be impartial because his house had been damaged by the blast. The second judge’s investigation has been paralysed by lawsuits. A suspension order was filed against him by former ministers, only for the judge who issued it to be himself suspended by a fourth judge. Part of what’s at issue is precisely the question of who has the jurisdiction to look into the case, as well as who has oversight over them.
The debate over the law and the constitution proceeds in parallel to the country’s socioeconomic collapse. The Lebanese government does not provide electricity, fuel, education, security, healthcare or traffic lights, but makes a great show of its commitment to the judicial process and the finer points of the law. The discussion among legal experts, political analysts and the media follows the government’s lead, endeavouring to explain long unused parts of the legal code, as well as to interpret that still mysterious text, the constitution. What crimes are covered by parliamentary immunity? Is it lifted when parliament is in recess? If so, is it restored by an executive decision to recall parliament?
In October, there was fighting between supporters of Hizbullah, demonstrating against the investigations, and supporters of a Christian party, the Lebanese Forces. A probe into those clashes is now underway, replete with lawsuits and countersuits. Those who reject the investigation into the port blast, including Hizbullah, criticise the process for being ‘politicised’, since the members of only some political groups are being called to appear in court. It is not the idea of an investigation, or the authority of the state or the judiciary, that they formally question, but the particular ways in which this particular investigation by this particular judge is undertaken. And all the while they refuse to attend cabinet meetings – putting the new government at risk – until the investigations are ended by fiat.
While everyone on the inside knows that the divisions over the investigation reflect existing political divisions, the question remains whether, as it follows its course, the formal process will manage to become substantive – the concern with form somehow pushing into matters of content – and thereby rise above the divisions, breaking through the corruption and stalemate. In the meantime, it is as a hollowed-out state with a constitutional shell that Lebanon today celebrates 78 years as a sovereign, independent country, its citizens unsure whether to hold out hope, or to call out the farce.