To say that the recent explosion in the Port of Beirut was devastating would be an understatement. When the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate conspicuously stored in the port’s facilities for more than six years ignited, more than 200 were killed and an estimated 6,000 injured. The physical and infrastructural damage wrought by the blast was also immense. Many residents have already seen irrevocable damage to their livelihoods; 300,000 were immediately rendered homeless.
Needless to say, even an economically prosperous nation with a highly efficient political system would struggle to address such a dramatic catastrophe. Neither of these characteristics are remotely applicable to Lebanon. In fact, this crisis could not have possibly come at a worst time for the perennially unstable Medditeranean state. Lebanon’s current bout of economic misery began in earnest last October, when a liquidity crisis led the government to restrict the public’s access to US dollar accounts. This unsurprisingly backfired, leading to a surge in demand for the American currency and a collapse in the Lebanese pound. At this stage, many observers were already sounding the death knell. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which dumped fuel on the figurative fire. As Fawaz Gerges morbidly put to the Washington Post in July (before the explosion): “Lebanon is no longer on the brink of collapse. The economy of Lebanon has collapsed“. Now, real fire – an explosive, destructive fire at that – which has imposed a repair bill of 15 billion dollars and may end up shaving 25% off the country’s GDP. Little wonder that various commentators are forecasting Lebanon’s transition into a failed state.
One would expect such dire circumstances to see the scalps of at least a few public figures taken. Among the first of these would be that of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who resigned along with the rest of his cabinet a week after the blast. Diab, a Sunni Muslim and hitherto obscure academic working at the American University of Beirut, was last December plucked out by the country’s notoriously corrupt political elite to lead a “technocratic” administration. It was hoped among Lebanon’s power brokers that this setup would stifle the momentum of a burgeoning protest movement and ameliorate the country’s economic misery.
As the wreckage in Beirut starkly illustrates, this facile scheme proved a profound failure; after all, how could his government – and its antecedents over the preceding six years – have allowed the ammonium nitrate to sit so long in the port? Particularly once it transpired that both him and the President – Michel Aoun, had been warned about the dangers of leaving such a large quantity of potentially ruinous material near the city centre a mere two weeks before the blast? Diab would defend himself by asserting that, going into office, he believed corruption was “rooted in every part of the state”, but following his seven months of executive experience he realised that it was actually “greater than the state“. In other words, even as Prime Minister he lacked sufficient power to pre-empt the crisis due to the extent to which a culture of corruption had embedded itself within Lebanon’s bureaucratic infrastructure.
How could this government – and its antecedents over the preceding six years – have allowed the ammonium nitrate to sit for so long in the port?
How could these institutions become so inefficacious and dysfunctional as to render their own command functionally impotent? The answer to this lies in the country’s deeply sectarian politics. Upon attaining independence from France in the early 1940s, a system of inter-sectarian power-sharing was established such that parliamentary seats were divided up among the various religious groups. In particular, the Presidency was reserved for a Maronite Christian (like Aoun), the Prime Minister’s office for a Sunni Muslim (such as Diab) and the parliamentary Speakership for a Shi’ite Muslim. This, along with other measures, would practically ensure the emergence of unaccountable sectarian elites. As journalist Robert Fisk puts it, “the very certainty of power-through-religious-sect ensures corruption“.
Viscerally illustrative of this is the fact that Nabih Berri, the publicly revealed head of the Shi’ite Amal Movement, has been Speaker of Parliament for thirty straight years – irrespective of the changes in Lebanese society and politics that have naturally occurred over such an extended period. This is the system working as designed; his position is assured principally in virtue of his sectarian alignment.
Corruption doesn’t merely manifest at the top, however. In a recent interview, Aoun incredulously insisted that he was “not responsible” for the blast, since he had limited control over the port’s day-to-day operation, and thus lacked the authority to address the ammonium nitrate issue. To be fair, this assertion isn’t without a kernel of truth. The port was jointly managed by two groups: the Customs Authority, controlled by figures from Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, and the Beirut Port Authority, dominated by bureaucrats loyal to ex-PM Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. As such, a situation arose where, despite nominally owning the port, the government’s jurisdiction over it was highly limited – thus, in his capacity as president, there was little Aoun could have done. This absurdity is exemplified by the fact that the state only saw 40% of the income from the port, with the rest presumably filling the coffers of sectarian cadres more concerned about their personal income than the mass of explosive material sitting under their noses.
Such corrupt conduct is commonplace among Lebanon’s sectarian elites, whether they be Maronite Christian, Greek Orthodox, Sunni, Shi’ite or Druze (among others). This has served to discredit the entire political establishment in the eyes of many Lebanese, as the slogan of the post-blast protests – “all of them means all of them” – indicates.
Most problematic, however, is Hezbollah. While also having lost credibility among swathes of the Lebanese public, the militia-cum-political movement maintains a substantial military presence across the country and a strong base of support among Shi’ite Muslims. Equally crucial is the fact that said military presence is non-negotiable for their masters in Iran, insofar as it serves various key geostrategic priorities of the latter, such as ensuring the Islamic Republic’s access to the Mediterranean. As is seemingly par for the course with groups involved in the governance of Lebanon, officials within Hezbollah have also succumbed to corruption, causing their subjects to increasingly associate them with the rest of the political elite. In turn, the social fallout from the blast has forced Hassan Nasrallah, the militia’s head, to take a defensive, pro-establishment tack. Take, for instance, his public agreement with Aoun that an international investigation into the cause of the blast was unnecessary, conveniently forgetting that the blast was the product of political and institutional failure.
All that said, if the last few weeks have shown anything, it is that Hezbollah aren’t the only centre of power in Lebanese society. In the aftermath of the blast, it was civilians that stepped up to the plate. While the state was effectively absent, civilian volunteers filled the vacuum and played a central role in clearing the streets and even other peoples’ homes following the explosion. The international community has noticed; a recent conference led by French President Emmanuel Macron saw foreign countries demand transparency regarding the use of an immediate $298 million aid package, and furthermore rendered longer-term assistance conditional upon concrete anti-corruption measures.
While the state was effectively absent, civilian volunteers filled the vacuum and played a central role following the explosion
In light of these developments, it is clear that the immense devastation wrought by the port blast has caused much of the Lebanese body politic to lose any shred of faith previously vested in the sectarian political order. The subsequent seizure by protestors of various government ministries and public calls for the ‘hanging‘ of every prominent member of the political establishment – Auon, Berri, Hariri and even Nasrallah alike – served to illustrate this fact.
The immense devastation wrought by the port blast has caused much of the Lebanese body politic to lose any shred of faith previously vested in the sectarian political order
A genuinely efficacious solution would require both widespread civil mobilisation across sectarian lines and bold action from the international community, including a realisation among Lebanon’s various stakeholders – most crucially Tehran – that reform will ultimately prove necessary to preclude further catastrophe. Only time will tell if such an outcome is genuinely feasible.