BEIRUT (AP) -- The most powerful men in Lebanese politics have been in charge for decades, some since the early 1970s. They've survived civil war, assassinations, uprisings and other turmoil, hanging on to power for decades in a turbulent, unforgiving region.
Now, they're in a desperate fight to cling to positions and wealth as Lebanon takes hit after hit, grappling with one of the world's worst economic meltdowns in decades and the aftermath of an explosion that ripped through the capital a year ago, killing more than 215 people.
The gunbattles that raged for hours on the streets of Beirut this week were the latest manifestation of the willingness by members of the country's ruling class to fight for political survival at any cost.
Unhappy with where the investigation into last year's port explosion is going, they have closed ranks to make sure they are untouched by the fallout.
On Thursday, the militant Hezbollah group and the Amal Movement organized a protest demanding the removal of the judge leading the probe. Armed, they marched into predominantly Christian neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital, some shouting "Shiite, Shiite!"
Hezbollah and Amal, two Shiite parties that fought pitched battles against each other in the '80s but are now close allies, accused the Lebanese Forces -- a Christian party that had a powerful militia during the 1975-90 civil war -- of opening fire first. The Lebanese Forces denied it, blaming the violence on Hezbollah's incitement of its supporters against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the port investigation.
The two sides clashed for hours, demonstrating to the nation once again that the Lebanese must choose: justice and accountability, or civil peace.
For many, it exemplified why Lebanon is trapped in today's quagmire.
"They instigate the people against one another, then they sit at a table together to make deals," said Hanan Raad, whose sister-in-law was killed in Thursday's fighting. A mother of five, Mariam Farhat was shot by a sniper bullet as she sat near the balcony of her second floor apartment, her family said Friday.
The probe into the port explosion is at the heart of the current tensions -- as is Lebanon's culture of impunity, one in which the judiciary has never gone after those in power, despite widespread corruption and crimes.
That is until the August 2020 explosion at Beirut's port drew international attention to the massive corruption and negligence behind it. Within a few days of the explosion, it emerged from documents that several senior politicians and security chiefs knew of the hundreds of tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate stored haphazardly in a port warehouse and did nothing about it.
Entrenched politicians who lock horns and bicker over just about everything else, closed ranks to undermine the investigation.
Rival politicians, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and several religious figures launched a campaign to discredit Bitar, accusing him of bias.
When the judge began summoning officials, they used parliamentary immunity and various legal challenges to avoid having to show up for questioning.
Defiantly, the 46-year-old judge issued arrest warrants, including for former ministers of finance and public works, both Amal members and close Hezbollah allies.
Now Thursday's street clashes have further thrown into doubt both the future of the investigation and whether Bitar can continue leading it.
"We are dealing with a new equation: either Tarek Bitar leaves, or the country will be ruined," said Youssef Diab, a political analyst. "We are in front of this new and dangerous equation."
The establishment parties have collectively worked to block any serious opposition and attempts at reform that might harm them, observers say. They have hampered a forensic audit of the country's central bank, a key demand of the international community to restore confidence in the crisis-struck Mideast nation, protecting the bank's longtime governor even as he faces corruption charges in Switzerland and France and accusations of gross mismanagement at home.
Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system has proved impossible to bring down. Protests have been quashed. Warlords have cast themselves as their sect's protectors, granting favors to their followers.
A revolt against the status quo would mean breaking up the sectarian patronage network, cultivated by the ruling elite and one that many in the divided population benefit from. Many Lebanese politicians have a large -- even blind -- following. They are quick to blame other factions for the country's myriad problems and eagerly stoke fears among their supporters that another sect could gain power over them.
Hundreds of thousands thronged streets in Beirut and across Lebanon in late 2019 in some of the largest protests the country has seen. For a few months, the demonstrations unified an often-divided public in revolt against entrenched leaders who have brought the economy to the brink of bankruptcy.
The protests were met with violence, arrests and intimidation, and eventually fizzled out.
Some are banking that elections next spring will bring a degree of change. But the opposition has no viable political program or candidates who can challenge the political elite. And as the economic crisis has thrown three quarters of the population into poverty, vote-buying will be much cheaper.
With pent-up anger among many Lebanese, growing sectarian tensions and a political class desperate to cling to its privileged role, a descent into further violence becomes even more possible.
Michael Young, a senior editor at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says there could be serious consequences if Hezbollah and Amal manage to derail the port investigation.
"The sudden escalation in violence could provoke new developments in Lebanon that lead to a cancellation of elections, and take the country into a much darker period than the one that exists today," Young wrote Friday in Diwan, Carnegie's Mideast blog.