The finger of blame for the Beirut explosion is pointing at Lebanon’s corrupt and criminally negligent political leadership. Amid continuing protests, the government of prime minister Hassan Diab resigned on August 10, though ministers will stay on in a caretaker role until a new cabinet is formed.
The international community has pledged aid to Lebanon’s government in exchange for political reform. But this stance requires a reversal of the international community’s existing role in Lebanon – and its complicity in the survival of the regime.
Lebanon’s power-sharing system, which sustains sectarianism and thrives on corruption, is propped up by international powers. Rather than promote meaningful reform, countries such as France, the US and the UK have historically viewed power-sharing as a stabilising force.
Based on a 1943 National Pact, Lebanon’s power-sharing formula allocates political offices along sectarian lines, including between Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia factions. This undermines meritocracy and encourages polarisation.
Still, power-sharing in Lebanon is not a reflection of ancient sectarian hatreds. It is largely the product of the French Mandate between 1923 and 1943, which cemented sectarianism in public life. So it was ironic that when the French president, Emmanuel Macron, arrived in Beirut in the aftermath of the explosions, he called for a new pact for Lebanon in the guise of a National Unity Government.
When Lebanese power-sharing was revised to end the civil war in 1989, international actors were again involved. As a reward for joining an anti-Iraqi coalition led by the US, the international community gave Syria the green light to act as Lebanon’s guardian.
Lebanon is inappropriately imagined as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a place where multiple religious groups coexist and a veneer of cosmopolitanism reigns. Any attempt to transform power-sharing is resisted by warlord elites. Reforms such as phasing out sectarian appointments have been frowned upon by political leaders on the basis that they would lead to the terrifying violence seen in neighbouring countries.
The international community often frames Lebanon’s political system as the lesser evil in the context of autocratic fortresses in the neighbourhood. Rather than helping the country move to end political sectarianism, as Lebanon’s post-war peace accord stipulates, power-sharing has become an invasive species, colonising the state.
In an attempt to shield itself from the blowback effects of the Arab Spring, the international community has shifted away from policies aimed at deepening democracy in the Middle East to those of pragmatic realism. Stabilisation rather than change is the goal.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has received more than a million displaced Syrians since the civil war began in 2011. While Lebanon initially adopted an open-border policy towards Syrians fleeing violence, it closed its borders in 2014, cracking down on the livelihoods and rights of displaced people. Yet the international community has lauded Lebanon’s so-called hospitality, portraying it as a pivotal actor in the international refugee regime.
Lebanese politicians leverage the state’s value as a refugee host, warning that any destabilisation of Lebanon would trigger waves of refugees to Europe. The EU has closely cooperated with Lebanon’s governing elite since 2012 to build resilience, in programmes aimed at empowering refugee and host communities.
But the EU’s resilience-building rhetoric conceals accumulated vulnerabilities, injustices and political abnormalities. In response, civil society activists and analysts have cautioned against the EU’s cooperation with Lebanon’s corrupt elite. The false allure of regional stabilisation only consolidates elite power, rather than addressing the needs of citizens and refugees.
Lebanon’s crises have multiplied in recent years. In 2015, a massive garbage crisis epitomised the decline of public services and rising corruption. Yet, in April 2018, the international community used the Cedre Conference to pledge more than US$11 billion to strengthen and develop the Lebanese state.
Back then, the Lebanese government presented “a vision for stabilisation, growth and employment”. In return, the international community called for a follow-up mechanism to track reforms as a condition to unlock pledged grants and loans. Yet, the international community’s call for reforms remained ineffectual and couched in vague terms – and the follow-up mechanism never materialised.
In October 2019, Lebanon’s political leaders faced unprecedented protests demanding the dismantling of sectarian institutions. International powers vowed not to funnel aid to the Lebanese government unless it embarked on radical reforms.
The August 4 blast, however, imposed new realities in the architecture of international aid to Lebanon. Transformed into a site for post-disaster restructuring, Lebanon needs urgent aid. On August 9, France co-hosted an international conference that pledged US$300 million for humanitarian relief and reconstruction.
The international community must ensure that this aid does not prop up defunct institutions and inept sectarian leaders.
Myths of stabilisation and resilience-building during overlapping crises have double-edged consequences for Lebanon. By not engaging with the roots of dispossession and conflicts, international powers promote short-term versions of resilience, stability and humanitarian protection. This papers over dysfunctional institutions and deteriorating livelihoods.
Such recipes are counterproductive. Rather than encouraging citizen resilience, they consolidate the robustness of political leaders who feel empowered enough to tread on their citizens’ suffering and hopes.
Only the Lebanese can cast off their own warlords and kleptocrats through new elections and a homegrown political system that strengthens the rule of law and weakens the grip of patronage and sectarian identities on state institutions. Yet the international community can help – by refraining from bolstering and legitimising their rule.
Since the explosion in Beirut I’ve listened repeatedly to the song Ya Beirut (Oh Beirut) by the Lebanese diva Majida al-Roumi, while obsessively reading the news and checking on extended family members – like any other expatriate Lebanese.
The song, which was originally a poem by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, describes the city as it emerged from the civil war. The poet/singer apologises to the city for misunderstanding it, for maltreating it and calls on Beirut to “rise from beneath the rubble”. Yet the line that struck me the most, that echoed within me was “we now know that your roots are deep within us”. That was an epiphany, as I always thought I hated Beirut.
I first came to know Beirut in the fall of 1988 as a student at the American University of Beirut (AUB). I had not turned 18 yet and came to study English literature as books had been my only friends growing up. They offered me an escape from the realities of the civil war. Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and others gave me a window into other worlds when bombs fell and bullets sang around us. I was excited to start a new life in a city where I could reinvent myself. Beirut destroyed all my dreams.
Soon after the end of my first semester at AUB in 1989, Michel Aoun, the current president of Lebanon, then head of a military government, began his “war of liberation” against Syria. The western side of Beirut where the university is located was shelled and we were forced to evacuate.
Upon our return following the Ta’if agreement which ended the civil war and sent Aoun into exile in Paris, we resumed our studies. The spring semester of 1990 was crammed into the next academic year, and we undertook an intensive course of study to graduate on time.
I came to hate with passion every moment I spent on the AUB campus and could not wait to leave Beirut, a city I had come to revile after all the years of turmoil. My acceptance for an MA in English literature at the University of London was the initial step in a long trajectory that took me to Paris, Berlin, the US and now Sweden.
Over the following decades, I switched from studying literature to Middle Eastern politics. After growing up in Lebanon during the civil war, I needed to tease apart in an intellectual and systematic manner the events that I sleepwalked through using literature as a crutch. The resulting book Pax Syriana allowed me to clarify (if only in my own mind) the role of political elites not only in the war, but also in the postwar era.
These political elites were mainly warlords who “recycled themselves” as politicians. They were rich tycoons who had made their money abroad, military men and members of the militant group Hezbollah. Lebanon, and specifically Beirut, was a virgin territory where these people could enrich themselves and their cronies.
Clientelism has always been a characteristic of Lebanese politics but it evolved into grand corruption in the postwar period. Graft was rampant in key sectors of the economy, including transport, healthcare, energy, natural resources, construction, waste management and social assistance programmes.
The Lebanese rose up in October 2019 against this political malfeasance, demanding the fall of the sectarian regime. They called for the removal of Michael Aoun, who had returned to Lebanon in 2005 after his exile in France and became president in 2016.
The economy decimated, Lebanon was falling apart at the seams. Then came the August 4 explosion in the Beirut port, and the medical, economic and social catastrophe took on gargantuan proportions. The dead have not been counted yet, as many are still under the rubble, but over 5,000 are wounded. More than 300,000 are said to be homeless.
The explosion is said to be due to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate confiscated in 2013 and improperly stored since then in the port. The chemical was to be auctioned or somehow disposed of, but that never happened. Its storage near residential areas was a disaster in waiting.
The Beirut port is a key node in the Lebanese transport sector and the import-dependent economy moves most of its imports through it, including the majority of foodstuffs. However, as a port employee has noted, “corruption at the port is a rule” and while Hezbollah controls it, all Lebanese politicians have interests in this crucial transportation hub. This therefore appears to be a case of criminal negligence on the part of every single Lebanese politician, but especially all the governments that have been in power since 2013.
While writing these words, I find myself choking with a strange mixture of relief and pain. The relief is the knowledge that I have escaped Lebanon – that I saw through the mirage of the postwar period and refused to go back to a failing state. I feel strangely justified in every single decision I took in the past decades.
But my heart is also bleeding for a city I thought I hated. I hurt for the youth of Lebanon stuck in a hell without hope of escape. I read the words that Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, posted on his Facebook page and I weep:
Beirut I hate you so much for making me leave. I hate you for everything you’ve taken from me … I hate you so much for finding a way to punish me when I’m not even there. Beirut I hate you as much as I hate myself for still belonging to you.
I have an inkling what this feeling stuck in my craw is: it is survivor guilt. I survived Lebanon and Beirut but my roots are still there.
Lebanon did not need one of the world’s most horrific accidental detonations to remind people it is a state teetering on the edge of collapse.
However, the destructive power of 2,750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate ignited in Beirut’s port, killing 135 people and injuring 5,000 more so far, has amplified the parlous state in which Lebanon finds itself.
Lebanon might not meet the accepted definition of a failed state because it retains the trappings of a central government. But an administration corrupted by a patronage system based on the country’s confessional groupings has long failed to deliver basic services to a population of 6.8 million.
Power shortages are a fact of daily life, inflation is rampant, the Lebanese pound has collapsed, unemployment has gone through the roof, crime has sky-rocketed, and food shortages are endemic.
If not a failed state, Lebanon is a failing one.
And it has been failing for a long time.
In essence, Lebanon’s problems are structural and therefore not capable of simple, or even rational, solutions.
The problems go back to the French mandate-era constitution of 1926, which sought to divide power between the country’s Christians and Muslims.
Under these arrangements, refined over the years, the president would be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the National Assembly, or parliament, a Shia Muslim.
Cabinet’s composition would reflect these main confessional strands. So would positions in the military, security apparatus, judiciary and bureaucracy.
Needless to say, haggling over the distribution of the spoils of office has contributed to one of the most corrupt countries on the planet.
According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Lebanon ranks 137 out of 180 globally.
Lebanon’s wealth, such as it is, has been looted over the years by officeholders and their cronies to the point where the country is effectively bankrupt.
Then there is the increasing and disruptive influence of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, now the dominant political force in the country. Hezbollah’s growing power is one of the reasons Lebanon’s fragile power-sharing arrangements have come under increasing stress.
At the same time, Lebanon has been inundated by Syrians displaced by their homeland’s civil war.
Relative to its population, Lebanon has absorbed more refugees than any other country in the world. They account for 30% of Lebanon’s population.
These pressures have pushed the Lebanese administration close to breaking point.
In that context, the port ammonium nitrate explosion could hardly have come at a worse moment for an embattled government. It has been engaged in months of testy negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout plan.
IMF negotiators have been frustrated by their inability to get Lebanese counterparts to sign on to an emergency relief scheme to enable Lebanon to keep functioning.
Among the sticking points has been agreement on what money has been lost or otherwise misappropriated.
“It has been really difficult. The core of the issue is whether there can be unity of purpose in the country,” the IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, told reporters after talks had stalled.
This is an understatement.
Lebanese have been taking to the streets to protest against government corruption and incompetence. Those protests will now be fuelled by greater levels of outrage over the mismanagement by port authorities of highly combustible material that arrived on a Russian ship bound for Madagascar in 2013.
That ship did not continue the voyage. Its cargo was offloaded and placed in a warehouse. Higher authorities ignored repeated warnings from customs officials about the risks of continuing to store the ammonium nitrate.
Tragically, this episode pretty much sums up Lebanon’s central problem: lack of accountability due to a fractured and fragmented administration.
Action is already being taken against officials deemed immediately responsible for overseeing security in the Beirut port. But this is unlikely to assuage anger among the general population over what has taken place.
In the days before the explosion, and separate from it, Lebanon was already on tenterhooks in anticipation of a UN-backed court verdict in the trial of four members of Hezbollah accused of assassinating former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri, who spearheaded Lebanon’s reconstruction after its civil war, was killed in Beirut in 2005 by a massive truck bomb.
UN investigations based on phone records identified four alleged culprits, none of whom have been seen in public for years.
Hezbollah has questioned the validity of the UN’s inquiries.
The verdict was due on February 7. It has now been put off to August 18.
If the UN court finds the accused guilty it will add to sectarian tensions.
Questions have been asked in the past about whether Lebanon can survive as a confessional state based on archaic power-sharing arrangements. Those questions may resurface.
In the meantime, the country’s strategic significance, abutting Israel in the south and Syria to its east and north, means it is not in the interests of the wider Arab world, nor the West, to allow it to implode.
The outlook for Lebanon, whose main city was once known as the Paris of the East, is bleak.