For Lebanese, government dysfunction has a new, tragic cost
Why We Wrote This
The Lebanese people, already tired of widespread corruption and entitled elites’ governmental fiefdoms, took to the streets last fall. The explosion in Beirut’s port is a tragic reaffirmation of their grievances.
An aerial photo shows the scene of a mammoth blast that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020. A ragged crater, at right, was created by the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored for years with few safeguards, despite warnings.
August 6, 2020
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For many Lebanese, the culprit of the Beirut explosion that has claimed more than 150 lives and left up to 300,000 homeless is an ingrained political culture of incompetence and corruption that allowed a hazardous material to be stored for years at the port with minimal safeguards.
Ironically, the system of unaccountable sectarian fiefdoms was codified by the very power-sharing agreement that helped end the country’s 15-year civil war. Anger at that system, and at the elites who have profited from it, is what sent Lebanese protesters into the streets last fall.
Yet the Beirut event is so dramatic, analysts say, it could become a catalyst for reform, not only by reinvigorating the anti-establishment protests, but also, perhaps, by ensuring that the flow of donor aid now beginning to pour into the country is channeled through “clean” hands and not given directly to the government.
“These serial economic crises don’t quite capture the frustration and humiliation of daily life in Lebanon – the lying and cheating involved in navigating it, the sectarian pettiness, the corruption, the power cuts, the disappearing savings, the currency collapse,” says Faysal Itani at Georgetown University. “No sane or decent person would accept to live that way,” he says.
Faysal Itani hasn’t forgotten the sweltering summer he worked at the Beirut port as a teenager in the late 1990s, because after 15 years of civil war, it was a rare period of hope, optimism, and rebuilding for Lebanon.
Forced to take the menial job by his father as a “character-building exercise,” Mr. Itani inputted shipping data into obsolete computers at an aged administrative complex. Fellow workers teased him for his enthusiasm, “but spirits were high enough, and things did get done.”
By then, the rejuvenated face of Beirut had already changed dramatically since the end of the war in 1990, when Mr. Itani used to play a game with his father about who could be the first to spot a building not scarred by fighting.
Yet Lebanon’s tragedy was far from over, a reality reflected in the downward trajectory from those days of optimism, directly through decades of government dysfunction and corruption, to the mammoth explosion at the port Tuesday.
The blast, one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history, was attributed to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The substance – just two tons of it were used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – was stored with few safeguards after being offloaded in 2014 from a ship that ran into legal trouble and was abandoned by its Russian owner. Multiple warnings from lawyers, customs officials, and state security organs to remove the material were ignored.
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The blast has claimed 157 lives so far, injured 5,000, left up to 300,000 homeless, wrought an estimated $3 billion in damages, and decimated a sizable portion of the city – along with any residual credibility of Lebanon’s widely despised ruling elite.
A view on Aug. 5, 2020 shows damaged buildings near the site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area.
Still, the event was so dramatic, analysts say, it could become a catalyst for reform, not only by reinvigorating the anti-establishment protests that swept the country last fall and winter, but also, perhaps, by ensuring that the flow of donor aid now beginning to pour into the country is channeled through “clean” hands and not given directly to the government.
Indeed for many Lebanese – already reeling from a pandemic and collapsing economy – the culprit of the explosion is an ingrained political culture of incompetence and corruption stemming from calcified and unaccountable sectarian fiefdoms that fail to provide services, have enriched and empowered a few, and brought misery and poverty to most. It was a system codified, ironically, by the very power-sharing agreement that helped end the civil war.
“These serial economic crises don’t quite capture the frustration and humiliation of daily life in Lebanon – the lying and cheating involved in navigating it, the sectarian pettiness, the corruption, the power cuts, the disappearing savings, the currency collapse,” says Mr. Itani, who today is a deputy director at the Center for Global Policy and adjunct professor of Middle East politics at Georgetown University in Washington.
“No sane or decent person would accept to live that way,” says Mr. Itani. Even by the early 2000s it was “clear this experiment was falling apart.”
Anger has only grown as Lebanese sweep up the glass from the destruction of one third of their capital. Trending on social media are the words, in Arabic, “Hang up the nooses,” in reference to toppling the sectarian ruling class – the top demand of protesters who took to the streets nationwide last October.
A Lebanese surgeon, Bassam Osman, summed up his emotions on Twitter after ending 52 hours of nonstop work treating patients.
“The greatest feeling is not sadness, not anger, not despair, it is abandonment,” wrote Dr. Osman, a surgeon at the American University of Beirut Medical Center.
“We already lost all hope in … a criminal personnel that is governing us against our will,” he wrote. “People don’t want to hear that they are strong or they will rise. They are not. They are broken, they are helpless, they are abandoned. … They need something to lean on, at least for a breath.”
President Emmanuel Macron of France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, gestures as he visits a devastated street in Beirut, Aug. 6, 2020.
Lebanese officials announced that several past and present port officials had been put under house arrest. Prime Minister Hassan Diab vowed that the explosion “will not fly by without accountability,” and that those responsible “will pay the price.”
And yet, when President Emmanuel Macron of France, Lebanon’s former colonial power, arrived Thursday, he upstaged every member of Lebanon’s political elite by visiting devastated parts of Beirut before any of them had.
Mr. Macron was mobbed by crowds in the street calling for the “fall of the regime” and for revolution. He replied by saying he would “talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact.”
“What is also needed is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” he said, adding that Lebanon would “continue to sink” without reforms.
Rami Khouri, a professor of journalism and the director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, says Lebanon’s immediate focus is the humanitarian emergency, but a political reckoning is inevitable.
“There is going to be intense political focus on finally forcing the government to actually act responsibly, or get out of the way, and hold the real people accountable for this particular crime,” says Professor Khouri, contacted in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
If there are trials and the guilty are imprisoned, he says, it could “open the door” to ending impunity and going after those who are responsible for but failed to keep electricity running, water clean, and garbage collected.
The presence of such a large stockpile of hazardous chemicals in Beirut for so many years, for example, “is typical of many levels of incompetence in many different arenas – we just don’t know about them,” Professor Khouri says.
A woman takes pictures on her phone of a damaged church, after Tuesday’s explosion in the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 5, 2020.
“What’s going on with people distributing obsolete food, or medicine that’s no good? Or giving licenses away to people surreptitiously? There are so many things being done by government officials to make money, and we just don’t know about them,” he says. “It just happened that this, literally and figuratively, exploded into the open.”
But perhaps even more corrosive to Lebanon’s social fabric over the decades has been the steady assault on good governance wrought by the system of dividing political posts and spoils – and thereby economic goodies – according to sect.
“People are hired for political or sectarian affiliation rather than competence, are demoralized, and are compromised by corruption,” says Mr. Itani, who is not surprised that those in charge “did not care enough” to solve the problem at the port.
“It’s difficult to convey how this looks up close without a long series of anecdotes, but the notion of public good and civic duty in Lebanon is absent,” he says.
One place to start could be handling the influx of aid by an oversight body composed of a few respected individuals, charitable societies, donors, and others with “clean” hands, says Mr. Khouri of AUB.
“Their job is to disperse the money and monitor how it is spent, quickly and properly where it is needed – not to go buy cars for somebody’s cousin,” says Mr. Khouri.
Mr. Macron also heard worry from the streets that foreign aid will be stolen. “I guarantee you this: Aid will not go to corrupt hands,” he said.
Yet Mr. Khouri hopes his consortium idea could have a broader impact.
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“The most important thing is this would be a model for beginning the process of reforms, that the government no longer has full sovereignty,” he says.
“That sends the message: ‘Your people don’t trust you, and we [donors] don’t trust you. And that’s because you’ve shown for the last 30 years you’re not trustworthy. You’ve failed your people.’”