Some of the most powerful men in Lebanese politics are in charge since the 1970s, while others have been there for decades. They have survived civil wars, assassinations and other turmoil to hold on to power for decades in a volatile, unforgiving region.

They are now fighting to hold on to wealth and positions as Lebanon is hit hard. The country is currently dealing with the effects of an economic collapse that has been unprecedented in decades, and the aftermath of an earthquake that decimated the capital one year ago, which killed more than 215 people.

The latest sign of the determination of members of the ruling class in Lebanon to fight for their political survival was the gunbattles that raged on Beirut’s streets for hours this week.

They are unhappy with the direction of the investigation into the port explosion last year and have closed their ranks to ensure they are not affected by it.

The militant Hezbollah group and Amal Movement staged a protest on Thursday demanding that the probe’s chief judge be removed. Armed, they marched through predominantly Christian areas of the capital Lebanese. Some shouted “Shiite!

Hezbollah, Amal and other Shiite parties, fought in pitched battles in the 1980s, but are now close allies. They accused the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party with a strong militia during the 1975-1990 civil war, of setting fire to their positions first. The Lebanese Forces denies it and blame the violence on Hezbollah’s incitement against Judge Tarek Bitar who is leading the investigation into the port.

Both sides clashed for hours, proving to the nation that Lebanese must make a choice: justice and accountability or civil peace.

It was a stark reminder of why Lebanon is in today’s mess.

Hanan Raad said that they instigate people against each other, then they sit down together to make deals. Hanan Raad’s sister-in-law was also killed in the fighting on Thursday. Mariam Farhat, a mother of five children, was killed by a sniper bullet while she was sitting near her balcony on her second-floor apartment. Her family confirmed this Friday.

The current tensions are rooted in the probe into the port explosion. Also, the culture of impunity in Lebanon, where the judiciary has not pursued those in power despite widespread corruption and other crimes, is at the core of these tensions.

This was until the August 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port brought international attention to the corruption and negligence that led to it. It was discovered that senior officials and security chiefs were aware of hundreds of tons highly combustible ammonium Nitrate stored in port warehouses and did not do anything about it within a few days.

Closed ranks are used to stop the investigation from being conducted by entrenched politicians who squabble over almost everything.

Rival politicians including Saad Hariri, former Prime Minister, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Birr, the Parliament Speaker, launched a campaign against Bitar accusing him bias.

To avoid being summoned by the judge, officials used parliamentary immunity and other legal challenges.

The judge, 46, issued arrest warrants for Amal members as well as close Hezbollah ally.

Now, Thursday’s street clashes have further doubted both the future and the ability of Bitar to continue leading the investigation.

Yousef Diab, a political analyst, stated that “we are dealing with a different equation: Tarek Bitar must leave, or the country will collapse.” “We are facing this new, dangerous equation.”

Observers say that the establishment parties have worked together to block any serious opposition or attempts at reform that could harm them. They have prevented a forensic audit at the country’s central banks, which is a crucial demand of the international community to restore trust in the crisis-struck Mideast nation. This has been done in order to protect the bank’s long-serving governor, even though he is facing corruption charges in France and Switzerland, and allegations of gross mismanagement at home.

It has been impossible to overthrow Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing system. Protests were stopped. They have become the sect’s protectors and granted favors to their followers.

Revolting against the status quo means dismantling the sectarian patronage system, which was cultivated by the ruling class and one that many in the divided populace benefit from. Many Lebanese politicians have a huge, even blind, following. They blame other factions for the country’s many problems and stoke fear among their supporters of another sect gaining power.

In late 2019, hundreds of thousands marched through Beirut and the rest of Lebanon, in one of the biggest protests that the country has ever seen. The demonstrations unites a divided public against the entrenched leaders that have brought the economy to its knees for several months.

Protests were met by violence, arrests, and intimidation and ended in a halt.

Many believe that the elections in spring next year will bring some change. The opposition doesn’t have a viable political program and no candidates to challenge the elite. Vote-buying is likely to be cheaper, as three quarters of the population has been pushed into poverty by the economic crisis.

A descent into violence is possible because of the anger and growing sectarian tensions among many Lebanese.

Michael Young, senior editor at Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut, warns that there could be severe consequences if Hezbollah or Amal attempt to derail the port probe.

Young wrote Friday in Diwan on Carnegie’s Mideast blog, “The sudden escalation of violence could provoke new developments and lead to a cancellation or postponement of elections in Lebanon, and put the country into an even darker period than it is now.”