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.
Myths of stabilisation and resilience
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.
A new chance
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.
The explosion that tore through Beirut on Tuesday August 4 was so strong that shockwaves were felt on the island of Cyprus, over 200 kilometres away. At least 135 people were killed and 5,000 injured in the blast. Such devastation would be difficult to deal with at the best of times but it hit the Lebanese capital in the midst of a severe economic crisis that has only been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the blast, Lebanon’s currency had plummeted to record lows, losing more than 80% of its value since October 2019. The Lebanese pound has been officially pegged to the US dollar since 1997 at the rate of L£1,500 to US$1, with the two currencies largely used interchangeably. But this exchange rate has long been untenable.
This is because the nation’s government debt levels have for years been among the highest in the world, as were current account deficits (the difference between a country’s imports of goods and services and exports). Lebanon produces little and depends heavily on imports, including most of its food. It was borrowing heavily to pay for these imports.
This would usually prompt capital to leave the country, making the value of the currency fall. For years, however, the country avoided this fate. Local banks were happy to lend to the government because they were receiving exorbitantly high interest rates. The fact that many politicians held stakes in the banks cemented this cosy relationship between government and finance. Meanwhile, the country’s large diaspora was happy to deposit US dollars they had earned elsewhere in Lebanese banks. Friendly Gulf governments also provided financial assistance.
Yet by 2016, even the country’s loyal diaspora started getting cold feet about depositing money back in Lebanon and relations with the Gulf grew frostier. Capital flows into Lebanon slowed down. To try and keep money flowing in, the central bank then engaged in complex borrowing arrangements with local banks which it described as “financial engineering” but critics have labelled a Ponzi scheme.
But economic confidence was not restored and by September 2019 the central bank could no longer stem the flow of money leaving the country. With capital flight in full swing, banks started rationing the amount of dollars that people could withdraw from their accounts. The prospect that Lebanese savers would be unable to access hard-earned dollars or that their Lebanese pounds would lose value led to rising panic.
To raise revenues and present a picture of greater fiscal probity, the government then proposed new taxes on tobacco, petrol and voice calls via messaging services like WhatsApp. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest the tax along with wider issues of corruption, forcing the government to resign. But the currency plummeted as the new government under the next prime minister, Hassan Diab failed to develop a coherent strategy to tackle the country’s problems.
The collapse of the Lebanese pound means imports have become very expensive. Inflation is skyrocketing, causing unprecedented levels of economic hardship for Lebanese families. World Bank estimates from before coronavirus and the latest tragedy suggested poverty could rocket from a third to 50% of the population.
The collapse of Lebanon’s financial system is symptomatic of a wider failure of governance which goes back to the policies adopted after the end of the country’s civil war in 1990. Lebanon’s political class recruits itself from a narrow pool of families, many of whom have been in power for decades.
They claim to represent Lebanon’s many sects and government posts are shared according to a rigid formula based on the country’s religious communities. This system enables politicians to divide up economic spoils and enrich themselves – just as they did with the profits from banks they held stakes in.
Foreign powers from Iran and Saudi Arabia to the US and France have long indulged Lebanon’s leaders. They hoped that aid would gain them influence in this strategically important country.
The explosion of the port fits into the pattern of failed governance in Lebanon. Initial reports suggest that port officials were aware of the dangers posed by the store of ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion. Only an impartial investigation could uncover full culpability. The neglect and incompetence at the centre of this disaster are typical of the myriad failures replicated across the state.
Solutions may emerge as many Lebanese look beyond their failing state and corrupt politicians. The day after the explosion, Beirut’s streets were filled with the sound of glass being swept up as thousands of people worked together without much support from official agencies in sight.
But destruction is widespread. Dwellings are damaged within a six-mile radius and initial estimates suggest 300,000 are homeless. Hospitals that were already struggling to cope with the first wave of COVID-19 cases, are stretched beyond capacity.
There are concerns over food supplies as the national wheat silo was hit and Beirut’s port damaged, which will further curtail the government’s ability to import food. A humanitarian crisis would also affect Lebanon’s estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 270,000 Palestinian refugees.
Various European and Arab governments have rushed emergency aid to Beirut for immediate recovery. A possible rescue package from the International Monetary Fund promises much needed funds but would also impose austerity and privatisation. The latest negotiations with the fund recently broke down over the inability of Lebanese politicians to present a united front.
The immediate future looks bleak and will likely see large-scale emigration. The explosion erodes what little trust citizens may still have had in their political class and long-term solutions require nothing short of fundamental political change.
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.
Uprising thwarted by tragedy
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.
At the time of writing at least 100 people have lost their lives and a further 4,000 have been wounded following an explosion in the Port of Beirut. While the actual cause remains uncertain, the tragedy calls to attention the tremendous consequences of a lack of port security.
The explosion, on August 4, at around 6pm local time, appears to have been fuelled by 2,750 tons of the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate. The chemical had been the cargo on a ship, the the MV Rhosus, which entered the port at Beirut in 2013 due to a lack of seaworthiness and was prohibited from sailing. After the ship’s owner abandoned the vessel soon afterwards, the ammonium nitrate remained in a storage facility in Beirut’s port.
While the disaster itself was exceptional, the events leading up to it were not. Hazardous material is shipped across the world’s oceans on a daily basis. It is often mishandled or illegally traded. Abandoned containers of hazardous goods are found regularly in ports.
While maritime security tends to focus on preventing high-profile events such as piracy, terrorism or cyber-attacks, all too often it is daily mishandling that makes disasters possible. Part of preventing disasters such as what has happened in Beirut will mean strengthening port management and addressing crimes such as smuggling and corruption.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has recorded 97 cases of abandoned ships and crews since 2017. Ships are abandoned by their owners if a vessel is no longer lucrative to maintain, or perhaps if the ship has been stopped by authorities and fined. While the situation of the seafarers aboard these ships is often tragic, as they may receive little pay or even food for months, what happens to the load of the vessels is often unclear.
And the IMO number only reflects the cases of ships – we know little about how many containers stand abandoned in ports around the world.
A UN report indicates that this number may be large. Containers often lie abandoned within ports, sometimes even by design, fuelled by criminal activities such as waste smuggling and corruption. Despite some efforts to counter this, the issue remains widespread and there are continued obstacles to tackling it.
International waste trade
Shipping companies often sail to Asia with empty containers, as much of the flow of trade is from Asia to Europe. As a result, they are willing to take low-value and high-volume bookings on the initial leg.
This has facilitated a burgeoning waste trade and with it a smuggling sector, where illegal forms of waste such as unrecyclable plastics are shipped from western countries to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Thousands of these containers lie abandoned once they reach the port.
Much of the waste is less dangerous than the ammonium nitrate that fuelled the Beirut explosion, but it can still have dreadful effects. Plastics, for example, can cause hazards if not properly disposed of. Much of it ends up in the ocean, fuelling the ocean plastic crisis.
In 2019, Sri Lankan authorities discovered more than 100 abandoned containers in the port of Colombo. They contained clinical waste, potentially including human remains, and were leaking fluids. The risk that the containers had contaminated the ground and surface water in the two years they had lay in port unnoticed fuelled public health concerns. Sri Lanka has been able to investigate this problem – but it is likely that, in many cases, abandonment goes undiscovered.
The abandonment of dangerous containers in ports is not a new problem. Since the 2000s there have been significant efforts to increase security levels in ports through surveillance, training and safety protocols. In light of the continuing abandonment problem, we know that these measures – and their implementation – are insufficient.
First, we have to start seeing the smuggling of waste and the abandoning of ships and containers as major offences. They should be seen as important parts of the blue crime and maritime security agenda. Appropriate legislation is needed to criminalise them. An international database for such crimes is required, as is transnational cooperation to address them.
Second, corruption in ports plays a key part in ensuring that abandonment goes unnoticed. It needs to be addressed with a concerted international effort.
Finally, increased efforts in building the capacity of ports to deal with hazardous waste, to detect smuggling and to deal with abandonment cases are needed. In particular, this will be necessary for ports which have limited resources and are common destinations for abandoned containers, such as ports in Asia and Africa.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Maritime Organization and the European Union already conduct port security capacity building work, in particular in Africa. More of this kind of work is needed.
Beirut has shown us the kind of impact a port disaster can have on a city and its inhabitants. Lessons must be learned to make sure a tragedy like this does not happen again.