Lebanon elections are unlikely to bring justice to victims of the boat tragedy

Lebanon elections are unlikely to bring justice to victims of the boat tragedy
The boat tragedy symbolises the crisis in Lebanon. People are desperately fleeing amidst a financial collapse, and paying with their lives, whilst elites responsible for their suffering are set to be rewarded with re-election, writes Khalil Issa.
6 min read
13 May, 2022
Dozens of people are still missing following the capsizing of a boat filled with migrants in Lebanon. [GETTY]

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More than a week later, one could still see along the cornice little navy ships scouring the waters of the Mediterranean. To no avail. The catastrophe had struck days before the end of the holy month of Ramadan and one month before parliamentary elections, all in the context of a financial collapse in Lebanon that is taking epic proportions.

On the night of 22 April 2022, a boat filled with around 84 migrants was heading to Cyprus. Many on the boat were Lebanese, but there were also Palestinians and Syrians; among them two Syrian Kurdish women from Qamishly who wanted to join their fiancés in Germany. The boat capsized after a Lebanese navy ship tried to stop it.

Only eight bodies have been recuperated until now, including a 1-year-old baby girl Talin Hamwi.

The forty-five survivors repeatedly told the local and national press, with videos circulating on social media, how the army ship ‘twice hit’ their boat in order to deliberately sink them.

Dozens of people are still missing.

''Between the hammer of the daily injustice carried out by the Lebanese regime and the anvil of the rapid impoverishment of two thirds of the population, illegal migration by sea, which used to comprise mostly working class people, has now seen the middle class joining them.''

The dominant feeling in the following days was one of anger and disbelief. The bodies of more than a dozen members of the Dandashi, Mereb, and other families, mostly women and children, have not yet been found.

The owners of the boat say that they refused to pay bribes and therefore were deliberately sunk. They even assert that the army waited 90 minutes in order to come and save them. The army, however, accuses those owners of organising human trafficking.

This raises many questions, including why the motorboat would sink that quickly? Surely the army had the means to force the boat’s illegal run without endangering its passengers? In this case, why, according to the concurring stories of the survivors, didn’t they do it?

The three Dandashi brothers - the owners of the boat- lost their loved ones in the sea, would human traffickers so foolishly risk the lives of their own? 

Normally, one would have to expect a quick investigation. Yet, many see the authorities’ promises as more or less worthless. And who can blame them?

In Akkar, in the northern parts of the country, people are still waiting for that endless investigation less than a whole year after an explosion of a fuel tank in Tleil that killed 33 people and burned more than a hundred others. They will now all have to wait even longer.

From the 2020 to 2021 migration has increased by 4.5 times. It usually involves the young and the educated leaving behind the old and the poor. Such a terminal brain drain is understandable when the Lebanese pound is 19 times its value.

Between the hammer of the daily injustice carried out by the Lebanese regime and the anvil of the rapid impoverishment of two thirds of the population, illegal migration by sea, which used to comprise mostly working class people, has now seen the middle class joining them.

Among the drowned was 45-year-old pharmacist Samar Qalush and her children.

Nevertheless, whether by sea, by plane or by fire in the Beirut Port explosion, Lebanese society is quickly fretting away.

If the boat sinking wasn’t already tragic enough for the people of Lebanon, another equally larger tragic historical juncture, is the sinking of the country in what the World Bank described as one of the worst economic crises ever recorded since the 19th century.

This becomes even more surreal when people have to endure the vanities of a botched parliamentary election, whose results will inevitably give the ruling class a long sought after renewed legitimacy.

Beyond the possible loss of a few seats here or there, a renewed formal legitimacy is the grand prize Lebanese de facto rulers – the zaïms, the 6 or 7 chiefs of sectarian clans, need most after the protests that erupted since October 2019 humiliated them.  

Ironically, the election in Tripoli imported and sanitised much of the anti-regime slogans first heard in its plazas. Those who were brave enough to face the now traditional zaïms billionaires complex, couldn’t avoid this rhetorical instrumentalisation. Yet, a parallel feeling of desecration of ‘all is for sale for the right price’ has silently crept in. And after the sinking of the boat, there has been more of this.


One candidate put up black billboard denouncing the need for justice for the ‘death boats victims’. There was no direct mention of the Army, however.

Many fail to see any good representatives amongst the candidates, but it feels there are hardly any alternative choices.

The zaïms billionaires complex comprises a handful of men who have repeatedly shown their deep contempt for the masses.

The prime minister himself in a first interview in Beirut said that “fate is to be blamed” for the sinking of the ship. Najib Mikati seemed hesitant, but he wasn’t so hesitant later on when he said in a second televised interview that ‘logic’ dictated that the boat would have inevitably sunk. He even invented his own paraphrase of a Qur’anic part of the chapter of ‘the Cattle’ in order to justify class inequality as a matter vouched by God.

Mikati might need to seek advice soon enough on how to precisely quote from the Qur’an from his friend the Mufti of Tripoli, but he will have to do so rather discretely. When the Mufti arrived at the Grand Mosque to lead the prayer on Fitr day, he saw balloons of water thrown at him by a woman who kept screaming, “how do you dare pray while our children are still laying under the waters? Shame on you!”

The urban religious elite is seen by many as no less treacherous than the rest of the more secular ones.

Tripolitans are in zugzwang. All their political chess moves will make their position worse.

There are also rumours running through the Sunni city that Hariri might be officiously giving the order to boycott elections. Yet, many people have called for a ‘moral vote’ which would mean choosing the lesser evil between candidates.

In a hideously undemocratic election law where white ballots are added to the percentages of the winners and a viciously sectarian game that resembles more a referendum for renewing allegiance to the zaïm, is there really a place for a moral boycott?

The weight of hopelessness feels considerable. If only those poor souls resting under the blue waters could visit the dreams of those struggling to survive, in order to advise them on what to do.

Khalil Issa is an independent researcher, journalist and political analyst who currently resides in Lebanon. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.