An earthquake, several airstrikes, and a nuclear bomb. That’s what came up in a Beirut resident’s mind on Tuesday 4th August, when a devastating explosion at the city’s main port brought destruction to the Lebanese capital, killing at least 200 people and wounding 7000.
The blast’s cause can be found in a large supply of ammonium nitrate, a dangerous explosive material, stocked in a warehouse at the city’s port. The explosion devastated the entire city, shattering buildings and shops in the quarters of Achrafieh, Hamra, Badaro e Hazmieh, and the impact had been perceived as far away as Cyprus, about 200 km far from Beirut. Right now, the authorities are struggling to search for survivors among the ruins and to treat all the wounded, operating in a public health system already agonized due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Al Jazeera, in 2013 the 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion was supposed to be sent to Mozambico by sea, yet damage to the engine of the ship forced the shipload to be stored in hangar 12 of the Beirut port. Since then, between 2013 and 2017, the customs authorities sent five letters to the local administration in order to remove the dangerous material from the port, but got no answer. As a result, the tonnes of ammonium nitrate remained silently stored for more than three years before the tragedy. Furthermore, the Lebanese head of Customs Authority Badri Daher surprisingly stated that there was a firework deposit close to the hangar of the ammonium nitrate that exploded.
Despite the lack of information accuracy we dispose right now, it is hard not to notice the negligence of a struggling state, which is the main culprit of a horrible crime against ordinary people.
Lebanon was not doing well even before. The country, which didn’t fully recover from a dramatic Civil War occurred between 1975 and 1989, is currently going through one of the worst financial crises it has ever faced. In March 2020, the newly elected PM Hassan Diab announced the default in an address to the nation, stating the impossibility to pay the $1.2bn debt to its creditors, marking the first financial defeat in the country’s history: a new phase for one of the world’s most heavily-indebted countries.
Even in the previous months, the public debt rose sharply, as it skyrocketed to $92bn, equivalent to over 170 percent of GDP. Furthermore, the Lebanese lira has been devalued by more than 80 percent compared to last August, which caused a dramatic falling trend in the currency’s value.
In October 2019, in order to contain the economic loss, the government led by the former PM Said Hariri imposed new taxes on internet call services (such as WhatsApp), tobacco, and fuel. This political choice represented the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it encouraged Lebanese people to finally protest against a corrupt system that couldn’t even provide basic services for its citizens. The protests pushed Hariri to resign in favour of Hassan Diab, who established a technocratic government and immediately express his intentions to work in favour of the poor.
Of course, the problems that need to be solved are multiple and complex: daily power cuts (some Lebanese people still live in houses with no artificial lighting), higher prices for food and most other essential goods and services, power plants that have run out of imported fuel, lack of drinking water and nevertheless the effect of an economic collapse which caused an increase in the suicide rate.
In addition to this, we can’t forget the widespread effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, which surely didn’t spare Lebanon: as the government imposed a complete lockdown in mid-March 2020, protests in the street were forced to stop, causing even stronger and deeper dissatisfaction toward Diab’s mandate, who clearly disappointed Lebanese people’s hopes.
Now, after this third shock, the many fractures in the country seem to be irreparable, in a state presenting a 25% unemployment rate, 45% of the people living under the poverty line, food and water scarcity, and no progress in human rights since 2015, according to Human Rights Watch.
The awareness of having lost everything for something so preventable made the Lebanese citizens tired and disappointed. And now, more than ever, furious.
After last Tuesday’s explosion, thousands of Lebanese took the street again, reminiscent of the same protests of the . They came back to Beirut’s Martyrs Square to express their rage against the same dysfunctional State that let the blast happen. Their intent to demand the resignation of the failed regime turned into a violent demonstration that not even the tear gas of the Lebanese security could suppress. In the meantime, considering the lack of any response from the culprit government, since Wednesday hundreds of volunteers have helped clear the streets littered with debris and glass, providing food and water to injured citizens and found shelter for those displaced. The sense of unity that is bonding the people hit by the Beirut’s explosion is unbelievable in a country that has been divided by internal tensions for decades.
The result of the frustration finally led to an important conquest for the people of Lebanon. After having suggested an early election in wake of the protests, the PM Hassan Diab decided to resign on Monday 10th August. In an address to the nation, Diab said that “the crime was a result of endemic corruption and lashed out at the country’s elite”, accusing it of plotting against his technocratic government. His announcement also came hours after Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni and Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm resignation in the explosion’s following days.
Right now, the country has to face the economic and social consequences of the disaster. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud has estimated that it would cost up to $5 billion to repair the capital’s port and the widespread damage.
The port was indeed “the beating heart of the country as it provided around 85 percent of imported goods, which kept the economy moving,” said Sami Halabi, director of knowledge and co-founder of Triangle Consulting in Beirut.
The destruction of the port threatens food security in the country: the large silo at the port which was destroyed in the explosion was the “only major grain silo” in the country. The destruction of the 120,000-tonne capacity structure, where Beirut receives much of its imported food including most of its wheat, spells disaster for Lebanon’s food supply. The only option right now is the country’s second port in Tripoli, 80km north of the capital, which is significantly smaller than Beirut’s and will struggle to handle additional cargo volumes. Although there is a strong urgency, the ramification of the financial crises and the impossibility to provide a foreign currency are preventing the country to import the goods it needs.
Lebanon has already been already brought to its knees, and that is the direct result of decades of governmental instability and political corruption, which led the country to hit the rock bottom. At this precise moment, the only way out is to convert a frustrated and exhausted population into a strong and organized civil society, that could bring some hope in favour of the country’s future.
Anna Nardone (Università di Bologna)