Damascus: Lebanon’s caretaker premier Hassan Diab has been accused of “criminal negligence” in relation to his role in the August 4 explosion at Beirut port, which destroyed large parts of the Lebanese capital, killing over 200 people. Instead of ending Diab’s political career, the accusation seems to have had an opposite effect, breathing new life into it while prompting Lebanese Sunnis to rally around him, claiming that their positioning in the state is under attack.
Suddenly and seemingly overnight, Hassan Diab has become something of a symbol for Sunnis across the country, a position that he had relentless tried carving out for himself during his brief tenure as premier, with little luck.
According to a 1943 gentleman’s agreement, the premiership in Lebanon is reserved for Sunni Muslims while the presidency goes to Maronite Christians. Blaming the premier for the Beirut blast has raised the ire of many in the Sunni Muslim community, who feel headless, powerless, and targeted, whether by the two Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, or by the dual Christian ones, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces.
“It is not Diab that has become a symbol for the Sunnis” commented Hilal Khashan, veteran professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB). “It is the office of the prime minister.”
“I have no love for Hassan Diab but making him shoulder full-blame for what happened on August 4 ridiculous” said Atef Nsouili, resident of the Lebanese capital. Speaking to Gulf News he said: “The ammonium nitrate entered Lebanon in 2013, seven years before Diab came to office. What about the other people who were in-charge before him? Why is it that only Hassan Diab has been found guilty?”
“What about the two presidents, Michel Suleiman and Michel Aoun?” added Nsouili. “Why are they innocent, while Diab is guilty?”
Hassan Diab was brought to power in January 2020, having previously held office as vice-president of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Earlier in 2011-2014, he served as Minister of Education under Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“The nitrate entered Lebanon’s port under Mikati, not Hassan Diab” said Mustafa Hajj Ibrahim, a retired customs official. “It was left there under Tammam Salam, Saad Al Hariri, and Hassan Diab. Why is it that only Diab has been accused of negligence? Something is not right.”
Over the weekend, the Mufti of Lebanon Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan telephoned Diab to express his solidarity, speaking on behalf of Lebanon’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, Dar Al Fatwa. So did ex-Prime Minister Tammam Salam and, very surprisingly, Saad Hariri, Diab’s predecessor at the premiership who recently self-labelled himself as the “father of Lebanon’s Sunnis.”
The two men have never gotten along, and Hariri is now poised to replace Diab as premier, although he is yet to form a government. He and his supporters have often accused Diab of being a protégé of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition. They have also said that Diab is guilty of ejecting Hariri loyalists from the civil service and replacing them either with independent Sunnis or those affiliated with Hezbollah. That did not prevent Hariri from calling on Diab, saying that the accusations against him were targeting the position of the prime minister.
“The premiership cannot be blackmailed” said Hariri, snapping: “That’s final.” He then added: “This is refused. We won’t accept it.” Even his Future Movement, which has constantly criticised Diab, came out with a remarkable statement, claiming that the judge who summoned Diab to court, Fadi Sawwan, was “sectarianising the catastrophe.”
Premier and three ministers
Sawwan made the criminal accusations on December 10, naming Diab and three former cabinet ministers. Two of them, Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zueiter, are from the Amal Movement, having served as ministers of finance and public works respectively. The third, Yousuf Finianos, is a former minister of public works who is a member of the Christian Marada Party. Two of the three, Khalil and Finianos, were slapped with US sanctions last September, accused of facilitating Hezbollah financial and political operations in Lebanon.
All of them had previously been summoned to Sawwan’s office, as witnesses, however, rather than suspects. Diab said that he has nothing more to tell the court, adding that he will not show up for the questioning session scheduled for December 16.
Khalil and Zueiter have also turned down the judge’s request, taking their que from their boss Nabih Berri, speaker of parliament and president of the Amal Movement. They have described Sawwan’s request as unconstitutional, saying that summoning sitting parliamentarians requires certain procedures that have not been met, like submitting an official request to the Chamber of Deputies.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi said that he will challenge Sawwan if ordered to arrest the prime minister and three ministers, describing the ordeal as unconstitutional.
“Lebanon is a confessional country” reminded Khashan. “Sawwan’s accusation breaks a code of behaviour since Lebanon is not a country where law rules. Accountability and transparency are not part of the political game.”