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Beirut’s Explosion: Is it the Beginning of the End of Lebanon’s Broken Political System?

Dina Mansour-Ille
Commentary, 18 August 2020
The real culprit for Lebanon’s latest disaster is a political system which needs total overhaul.

A military judge in Beirut has started examining the circumstances leading to the catastrophic explosion that levelled parts of the city almost two weeks ago, and determine who might face charges. But beyond that, Lebanon’s entire political system is now in the dock.

The nuclear-scale explosion that obliterated Beirut Port and created a massive shockwave destroying and shattering everything in its path for miles throughout Lebanon’s densely populated capital was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus – around 240 kilometres away across the Mediterranean. The explosion killed more than 200 people, injured over 6,000 and instantly rendered approximately 300,000 people homeless. The blast, which came on top of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, has pushed Lebanon to the verge of a humanitarian disaster.

In addition to the businesses and livelihoods destroyed by the blast, it is estimated that the losses suffered by Lebanon exceed $15 billion with the Lebanese General Directorate of Security Affairs further estimating that at least 3,972 buildings and 4,214 vehicles were damaged by the explosion. Though some early speculations, especially on social media, suggested the explosion was a result of a deliberate attack, later reports confirmed the culprit to quite simply, yet disturbingly, be nothing other than government negligence.

In 2014, the government confiscated and unsafely stored a shipment of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – a highly explosive chemical used as a fertiliser – at a warehouse facility at Beirut Port. Despite numerous requests between 2014 and 2017 by senior customs officials to the Lebanese courts and authorities, seeking the disposal of the shipment and explicitly warning of the dangers posed by ‘keeping this shipment in the warehouses in an inappropriate climate’, the requests were conveniently ignored. Investigations by Riad Kobaissi, a journalist who has been working on exposing the extent of the corruption of port customs officials for years, reveal, on the other hand, that these requests were completely pointless, as they did not follow the proper legal or administrative processes.   

Either way, the impounded deadly cargo that was originally destined for Mozambique remained at Beirut Port for the past six years as a ticking bomb and a disaster in the making. Ironically, in the year marking the centennial of the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon, the explosion came to symbolise everything that is wrong with Lebanon’s broken system: rampant corruption, nepotism, negligence and incompetence, weak state institutions, and the tendency to uphold elite and sectarian interests above all else.

Warlord Politics, Economic Clientelism

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been going through a deep economic and financial crisis that drove the country to a political meltdown. Home to over 6.8 million people and 18 recognised religious communities, Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction period of the 1990s has seen it assume substantial domestic and international loans; by the end of that decade it was estimated that its public debt reached $40 billion. That figure doubled by 2015, and today it stands at more than $90 billion or approximately 170% of Lebanon’s GDP, making Lebanon the third most indebted country in the world.

With the end of the Lebanese civil war, the political elites of today – essentially the same war cartels of the bloodiest years of the civil war – have created a system that abuses everything that the country has to offer for their own gains under the guise of sectarianism. Public services, such as clean water, electricity and healthcare, still follow a war economy approach with the government providing a minimal service while private contractors, often favoured according to sectarian quotas associated with the same elites, make massive profits by complementing these services at a cost.

Electricity blackouts are dutifully scheduled every day, which has created a so-called ‘generator mafia’, where nearly everyone in Lebanon is forced to depend in one way or the other on private generators. These are but a few examples representing the permanent for-profit warlord politics in place in Lebanon today, a structure that has adopted a recalibrated power-sharing formula with the end of the civil war as part of the so-called Taif Accords which ended the Lebanese civil war, and were concluded in 1989 in the Saudi city of Taif.

The 2015 garbage crisis, which was the result of the political elite’s bickering over waste-management contracts, gave birth to the ‘You Stink!’ protest movement and was the beginning of a string of government failures to provide even the most basic services followed by a period of economic hardship. ‘When the government announced a set of regressive tax proposals last October, it was not the taxes themselves that pushed people to go down on the street; it was rather the fact that people were already fed up and reached a point where there was nothing left to lose’, recalls Sally Youssef, a researcher based in Lebanon, who joined the protests like many Lebanese at the time. ‘We wanted an end to corruption, clientelism and a system that has persistently failed the people’, she said. While the protests led to the resignation of then prime minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet, Lebanon’s political leadership remained invested in a system that thrives on corruption. The economy was soon in freefall with the Lebanese currency losing 80% of its value, inflation and unemployment soaring and much the population plunging into poverty.

What is Next?

The Beirut explosion has been labelled as ‘one of the single largest non-nuclear blasts in modern history’. It was also an epitome of the state’s failure and the country’s uncertain future under a broken political system. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of a system that has been ‘driven by profit and capital accumulation at the expense of everything and everyone’, says Rima Majed, Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut. ‘I think we have very bleak times ahead. Another civil war is very probable; alternatively, an international agreement will be cooked to calm the situation down, but that will only reproduce a system run by criminals’, she added. ‘If not a civil war, we are at least looking at a significant period of escalated violence between a public that feels betrayed and a political elite blinded by greed’, argues Youssef.

The widespread anger and fury following the explosion sparked another wave of nationwide protests that were met with state violence and parliament declaring a renewable two-week state of emergency in Beirut. What exacerbated the situation even further is the abysmal and rather predictable finger-pointing that government officials seemed to be more concerned with in the aftermath of the explosion to evade responsibility while doing very little to help the victims and those who have lost their businesses and livelihoods. ‘The government has been absent in the aftermath of the explosion; all what [sic] the political elite seems to be concerned with right now is how to keep the system alive for as long as possible; without the system, they cease to exist’, notes Youssef.

Acknowledging that corruption is ‘rooted in every part of the state’, Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his cabinet last week – though the government continues to assume a ‘caretaker’ role until a new cabinet is appointed. While the political elite desperately clings to whatever remains of Lebanon’s decaying system, international and regional powers – concerned with maintaining stability in Lebanon – back proposals for political reforms and the establishment of yet another national unity government. With the economy and country in ruins, Lebanon’s very survival will depend on foreign aid and international support at least in the near future. Yet the international community needs to ensure that in doing so it would not be providing Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system with a lifeline that empowers inept political leaders motivated by greed and creed.

Over 90 years ago, Khalil Gibran urged us to ‘pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation’. Lebanon has been pitied for far too long. Perhaps now is the time to finally build a Lebanon for the Lebanese people regardless of sect, religion, creed or class – one worthy not of pity, but of pride.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Shahen Araboghlian


Dr Dina Mansour-Ille
Senior Research Editor

Dina Mansour-Ille holds a PhD in Politics with a focus on political violence, conflict and social movements. For over 10 years, she has... read more

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