The devastation caused by the massive explosion that ripped through Beirut on August 4 is beyond any worst nightmare for the country. The blast, which officials have linked to the improper storage of some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port since September 2013, left at least 137 dead and 5,000 wounded. It sent shockwaves across the city, causing widespread damage to buildings and shattered windows even on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital.
Beirut is a city that knows how to rise from the ashes – it is said to have been destroyed and rebuilt seven times during its 5,000-year history. This most recent catastrophe, however, is more haunting than any past war, invasion or earthquake that ravaged the ancient city, because it was brought on not by a hostile outside force or natural disaster, but Lebanon’s own ruling elites.
It is still not entirely clear what sparked the blast in cargo vessel loaded with a highly combustible material recklessly left in a civilian port since it was abandoned in Beirut port nearly seven years ago. There is no doubt, however, that what happened on Tuesday was not merely an accident. It was the latest deadly consequence of the deep-rooted culture of corruption, incompetence, and negligence in the Lebanese state apparatus.
The Port of Beirut functions without any real governmental supervision. It is jointly managed by the Customs Authority and the Beirut Port Authority. While the former is under the control of President Michel Aoun’s loyalists, the latter is managed by bureaucrats loyal to former prime minister Saad Hariri. Both of these public authorities are technically supervised by the government, but in practice, they do not succumb to any official hierarchy or parliamentarian control like all the other Lebanese authorities and institutions that only report to the sectarian leader or group protecting them.
Given Lebanon’s abysmal record in investigating governmental negligence and corruption, many who contributed to the tragedy at the highest level of the Lebanese state will likely never face justice. This is problematic, as it contributes to the erosion of public trust in government.
The explosion is also going to have a devastating impact on Lebanon’s long-struggling economy, fragile political status quo, and international standing.
It is not clear whether the government is able to secure the amount of cash it needs to provide shelter for 300,000 who lost their home and to ensure the flow of basic commodities in the aftermath of the explosion. It will eventually be forced to add to its existing domestic and foreign debt to pay for recovery and reconstruction, causing the Lebanese government to become even more dependent on foreign aid, and weaken its negotiating position against the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As a result, the country’s existing divisions on foreign policy will deepen, with rival political groups fighting over where Beirut should turn for help at this time of grave need. The US, France and Iran are already weighing in to offer assistance, and some in Lebanon are already entertaining the idea of inviting China to rebuild the Beirut port.
The devastation and public anger caused by the explosion, coupled with the increased involvement of foreign powers in the country, will further weaken the Lebanese government and add fire to existing domestic political tensions. Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his backers will likely try to use the explosion to reduce former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s influence over the state. Hariri, in return, may team up with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt to launch a campaign against the Lebanese government and potentially the presidency. Hezbollah, another major player in Lebanon’s corrupt political system, meanwhile, will try to manage these tensions to maintain its influence in the country.
Today, the Lebanese people are facing an unprecedented tragedy. After experiencing a devastating economic collapse and trying to fend off a pandemic with limited resources, they are now faced with the enormous task of healing their wounded and rebuilding their capital city and main port. There is a sense of exasperation and fatigue after all what the country has been going through.
The Lebanese people undoubtedly need all the help they can get from the international community. But the country’s elites, who are directly or indirectly responsible for this tragedy, should not be allowed to use international aid as a life vest to save themselves from scrutiny. The international community appears to be inclined to view the explosion in Beirut solely as a humanitarian crisis. Offering assistance to the Lebanese political system without questioning its role in bringing about this tragedy and the economic collapse, however, will harm, not help, the Lebanese people. It will provide yet another opportunity for the corrupt elites to dodge accountability, shift responsibility and avoid implementing the structural reforms the country desperately needs. There are ways to help Lebanon without going through the traditional official channels.
This is why if the international community really wants to help Lebanon heal, it should not only send aid and offer support, but also acknowledge what really happened in Beirut on August 4: a failing state, through negligence, incompetence and corruption, destroyed its own capital and killed its own citizens.