Main Image Credit Protest in Beirut, 2019. Courtesy of Nadim Kobeissi / Wikimedia Commons.
It is easy to view the incident as a singular calamity. In reality, it is the result of systemic factionalism, greed and incompetence on the part of the Lebanese government. Until that is addressed, it will not be the last tragedy to befall the country.
Disaster struck Beirut on Tuesday evening when 2,750 tonnes of explosive materials detonated in the city’s port, leaving an as yet undetermined number of dead and thousands wounded. The explosion was heard 240 kilometres away in Cyprus, while dust from the blast reached Damascus. It was preceded by a fierce fire and staccato detonations that engulfed a warehouse shortly before 6pm, drawing many residents to their windows. The subsequent shockwave blew out windows throughout Beirut, lacerating people across the city and rapidly overwhelming hospitals.
The cause of the secondary explosion was a store of ammonium nitrate that had been seized by the port authorities from a ship in September 2013 and subsequently left in a warehouse. The cause of the original fire will be a subject of urgent investigation. That investigation cannot assume the absence of foul play – Beirut’s port is a critical route for arms and illegal goods – but it must not rule out the possibility that the original fire was started by accident.
Any credible hypothesis involving nefarious causes of the fire must acknowledge that there is no actor whose interests were served by the resulting devastation of Beirut. Lebanon has long retained a precarious stability from the fact that no single faction has any confidence of winning a return to civil conflict. Many initially suspected Israel, which has recently conducted strikes on Beirut and remains in a state of war with Lebanon. But such an attack could not go unanswered and Israel has no interest in a costly and pointless war. Israel was emphatic in denying responsibility and quick to offer aid.
Hizbullah – knowing that to blame Israel would require it to retaliate and thereby spark an escalation cycle it could not win – was also clear in stating that Israel was not responsible. There are a large number of criminal gangs who could have perpetrated arson in the port over a wide array of petty disputes, or else the fire could have stemmed from an industrial accident. Ultimately, it is of little consequence. The blame for the conflagration turning into a calamity lies with the Lebanese government and its seismic corruption and ineptitude. Lebanese customs officials asked the Ministry of Justice to remove the confiscated ammonium nitrate from the port seven times, to no avail.
The Lebanese economy has been in freefall since October 2019 when nationwide protests brought down the government, the country defaulted on its loans and it found itself experiencing hyperinflation. Currency controls at the banks have prevented people in Lebanon from withdrawing dollars. Electricity supplies have fallen to a couple of hours a day. The root causes of Lebanon’s economic implosion arise from the corruption that has hollowed out government services and institutions for decades. That governance has descended into farce is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that while private electricity generators are illegal, it is also prohibited for the businesses that service them to go on strike. It is a cruel irony that during the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon has declared those carrying out illegal activities to be essential workers.
Yet, while Lebanon’s people have suffered, its political class – drawing on access to foreign currency – have seen their purchasing power expand, and have retreated to luxury resorts. The disconnect between their callousness and its consequences infuriated diplomats trying to negotiate an IMF bailout with the Lebanese government, whose officials persistently tried to seek personal gain from negotiations intended to preserve the country.
Now, Lebanon’s corruption has exacted a deadly price. The prospects of auctioning off the seized ammonium nitrate led to it being neglected in an uncooled warehouse for years. This left a makeshift bomb, equivalent to over hundreds of tonnes of TNT, sitting in the centre of the capital’s port.
It is the duty of states to offer humanitarian assistance, to clear the rubble, provide emergency medical treatment and offer support for recovery. The explosion appears to have seriously damaged – potentially beyond repair – the country’s largest grain elevator, which processed 80% of the grain entering the country. The UK – which has been seeking to expand its relationship with Lebanon for some time – would do well to showcase what ‘Global Britain’ means at a time when so many friends are in desperate need.
But longer-term offers of aid should not be made without the firm recognition that the disaster was the result of a systemic failure of Lebanon’s political class. If that political class is unwilling to reform, then aid will do little more than set the conditions for subsequent disasters. Furthermore, Hizbullah is very likely to capitalise on anger felt towards the Lebanese government, both by offering money for reconstruction and contrasting government ineptitude with its competence. Hizbullah is, of course, a major beneficiary of government weakness, being one of the most prolific smugglers through Beirut’s port and a major contributor to the lack of governance that led to the disaster.
This incident could prove to be a turning point in Lebanon – a catalyst for change. It is an opportunity that the Lebanese people cannot afford to miss. They have suffered enough.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare