From all we know, the blast that destroyed much of the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut in the early evening of 4 August was an accident – but if so, it was an accident only in name. Storing, against repeated warnings, more than 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate for nearly seven years under unsuitable conditions near a densely populated area amounted to asking for a catastrophe to happen. Blatant, perhaps criminal, negligence and bureaucratic ineptitude were the immediate causes of the explosion that killed over 150, injured more than 5,000, displaced up to 300,000 and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage to the city – and counting.
In that sense, the disaster is only the latest, if most dramatic and devastating, manifestation of the dysfunction that has marked the Lebanese state for three decades. It is the product of a predatory political elite that has held state institutions in its grip and sucked them dry while allowing public services for ordinary citizens to break down to the point of non-existence. The networks of political influence, patronage and corruption they have built have compromised accountability, due process and professional conduct on all levels. Their behaviour has pushed Lebanon over the brink of bankruptcy and beggared much of the population. The headline in The Daily Star, a local newspaper, captured the bottom line particularly well: “Lebanon’s officials are its worst enemies”. Unless these political elites finally accede to the demands for fundamental reform, Lebanon will slide further into economic abyss, and public outrage may well lead to unrest and violence.
The blast will accelerate the Lebanese economy’s tailspin, immiserating a larger and larger part of the 6.8 million-strong population, one in five of whom are Syrian refugees. The Lebanese lira has lost more than 80 percent of its value since October, impoverishing citizens who now struggle to afford basic goods, which are mostly imported. Banks have largely refused to dispense their customers’ savings, as they grapple with their own apparent insolvency. On 6 August, the Lebanese Central Bank announced support for businesses and individuals seeking to repair damage, yet experts remain sceptical that the institution can squeeze enough dollars out of its shrinking foreign reserves to make a real difference. The liquidity crisis, loss of credit and resulting collapse of local demand, which was then deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic, has forced businesses to scale back operations or shut down entirely, shedding or furloughing tens of thousands of employees. State-provided electricity has dwindled to just a few hours per day, as fuel has become scarce.
Lebanese politicians have responded to the country’s political-economic crisis with characteristic lack of seriousness, arguing among themselves over the scale of losses at Lebanon’s politically connected banks, and who should make them whole. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over an economic rescue package have deadlocked as a result.
Now Lebanon’s national crisis has been made much worse. With Beirut’s port incapacitated, and smaller facilities along the Lebanese coast likely unable to take much of the load, bringing in sufficient supplies of food and medicine will be a challenge. The blast also destroyed the main grain storage silos and stocks of medical equipment. Enterprises that have weathered the crisis thus far will find it even more difficult to import equipment and materials to keep business going or to export their products. State tax and customs revenue will plummet further, forcing the government to fund its budget through the printing press and thus initiating a new round of hyperinflation.
Even before the latest disaster Lebanon was in need of humanitarian assistance. Now the need has become acute, and the volume of required aid, in particular medical staff and supplies, food to replenish destroyed stocks and building material to fix damaged shelters, has only grown. Thankfully, a number of countries across the Middle East and in Europe are already pitching in. They will have to do more, as the effects of the Beirut port’s destruction and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese set in, compounding the country’s misery. They should provide assistance directly to the affected population and through local and international non-governmental organisations present on the ground.
Lebanon’s political leadership may still have a chance to do the right thing and institute long-overdue reforms, as the Lebanese people have demanded, and on which international donors have conditioned an economic rescue. The corrupt political arrangements that have bankrupted the country and that led ultimately to the 4 August disaster cannot be allowed to continue; they have reached their end. They will not be revived by some miraculous injection of foreign money.
Two months ago, Crisis Group published a report on how to pull Lebanon out of the pit. We emphasised that the political elite that has ruled Lebanon for the past 30 years must carry out structural reforms that prevent corrupt and self-serving cliques from appropriating state resources and public goods in order to win the substantial international support the country needs to emerge from the economic crisis.
Now those elites are again facing the wrath of the country’s citizens, as they did in October 2019, when hundreds of thousands rallied against the politicians in charge. Those protests followed another humiliating episode in which the government was helpless to control wildfires after neglecting for years to pay for maintenance of donated firefighting helicopters.
The latest disaster is a similar failure, but on a monumental, much deadlier scale. It seems likely to unleash a new wave of popular fury. Lebanese are seething on social media. Activist groups that played a prominent role in the October protest movement are starting to mobilise again, raising their popular slogan demanding the removal of the country’s entrenched elites: “‘All of them’ means ‘all of them’”. Already in April and May, sporadic protests against deteriorating living conditions had sparked violent confrontations with the security forces, causing casualties. New demonstrations could spin out of control completely. A major protest has been called for 8 August.
If the Lebanese elites do have a chance to fix what they have broken, it may well be their last. They, along with the politicians whom they elevated and the officials whom they helped appoint, will have to face up to a Lebanese public that, after so many years of abuse and neglect, has now been terrorised by its own government with an entirely preventable explosion of world-historical size and destructive power. The public is justifiably enraged, and it has less and less to lose.
This article has been republished with permission from the International Crisis Group.