Beirut’s AshesOne Year After the Port Explosion, Lebanon is On its Deathbed
Tom Mutch reports from Beirut on the deteriorating living conditions for most Lebanese people and the fury towards its political class, following the explosion which rocked the country’s capital a year ago
We were sitting in a rooftop pool bar on a Thursday afternoon when my colleague pointed to the black streaks all over us and asked, “what on earth is that?”. We were all slowly being covered in soot. “Sorry for the ash cloud problem”, read a sign behind the bar, “it comes from all the neighbourhood generators. We are trying to keep as clean as we can.” No one was complaining, although in a different era, it would have been one of Beirut’s flashiest bars. It is a perfect metaphor for the rot that now seeps through every crack of the once vibrant Lebanese capital.
The state electricity service has collapsed, so the better-off Lebanese pay for access to noisy, unreliable, and heavily polluting private diesel generators. The poor often go without power at all. Life in Lebanon now consists of countless petty indignities like this. You wake up coated in sweat – no electricity means that you can’t cool your room from the sweltering humidity. You want to take a shower, but you can barely wring a few drops of water from the tap.
Outside, you walk by enormous piles of rubbish that have accumulated on the streets next to shops once full of luxury goods, now empty of customers. You wait in long queues for hours to obtain dregs of petrol. These inconveniences are nothing compared to the suffering of the poorer Lebanese. Hospitals have a severe fuel, shortage stopping many vital procedures. Just last week, a four-year-old girl died after being stung by a scorpion because the local clinics had run out of anti-venom.
This is all in a nation that, just two years ago, had pretences of being “the Switzerland of the Middle East”. The situation has become so bad that even many of those who fled the war in Syria are now planning to return.
It has been one year since the explosion of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port that killed 218 people and wounded 7,000 more, devastating the city and traumatising its inhabitants. This disaster was caused by what most view as criminal negligence on behalf of Lebanon’s governing class. Yet, what happened in the port was just the worst example of a general collapse of the country’s political, economic, and social systems.
On 4 August 2021 – the first anniversary of the blast – protestors clad in masks and balaclavas threw rocks, rubble, and a tennis racket in the direction of the Lebanese Palace, housing its Parliament. Security forces fired back tear gas and used water cannon on one group of protestors. Demonstrators filled Martyrs’ Square, just down the street from the Lebanese Parliament, which became the scene of the most vicious clashes between police and protestors since the Revolution of 2019.
The protest slogans expressed unbridled rage. “The Government killed my daughter”, read one. “It is not a crime to kill politicians, it is self defence”, said another. One group dressed as executioners carried a mock guillotine through the streets. Overlooking the square, filled with tearful and angry protestors, was a partly ripped billboard advertising Philippe Patek watches. It was an ironic sight, as it has been a long time since most Lebanese people could afford such a luxury brand.
“I feel rather neutral today,” said Yasmin Hassouna, a 25-year-old stylist watching the protests from the streets. “I’ve used up all my rage, I could have been killed the day of the blast – even then, I still felt that I’d perfectly accepted that I was going to die. I’ve just become numb, and now laugh at the absurdity of the situation here.” She plans to leave and join family abroad, as do many young Lebanese.
Tala Fakhoury, a 23-year-old neuroscientist from Beirut, who studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said: “It could be one of the happiest places on earth… but we all left because of the political instability, the corruption post-civil war and fear from terrorist groups like Hezbollah… what educated young person wants to go into politics when you could end up dead?”
The Lebanese have a felicity with the English language that is unrivalled in the region. It is spoken alongside their native Arabic, and French – the country’s colonial second language. The country boasts an educated and passionate cadre of young people. So how did the country spiral so spectacularly out of control? And why has there been no impetus to reform the political class from within, following a series of brutal catastrophes?
Lebanon was already in crisis long before the blast – the effect of it was to expose the country’s underlying plight. To outsiders, the country had been able to disguise a lot of its problems. “When bars and clubs are still open, it is easy to pretend everything is normal”, one Lebanese friend remarked.
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Lebanon has a complicated sectarian political system in which the leaders of various religious denominations – chiefly Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Maronite Christian – are assured various governmental positions, many of whom also enjoy immunity from prosecution.
This system was intended to balance out the factions and prevent civil conflict. However, it has created a governing class with guaranteed power which, it is argued, only put aside its weapons to loot the country. “They made peace after the civil war only so they could collectively rob the country,” one foreign journalist said.
At first, large amounts of money poured in from the international community to finance the country’s reconstructions. But soon, all Lebanese ministries and public services became effective fiefdoms parcelled out among various sects – all of which would siphon-off large profits, while the Government borrowed large sums of money to cover-up its increasingly parlous financial situation.
Now the economy has completely malfunctioned. The Lebanese pound has suffered one of the largest and fastest devaluations of a currency in history. Officially, it is pegged to 1,500 to the dollar, but it trades on the black market for around 18,000. In real terms, this devaluation means that the minimum monthly wage in Lebanon has fallen from around $450 to about $35 in just two years.
As the economic collapse has accelerated, the victims of the explosion seem further away than ever from securing justice. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published showed strong evidence that many members of Lebanon’s political class knew about the danger proposed by the chemicals but did nothing to prevent the catastrophe.
Lama Fakih, who oversaw the investigation as director of HRW’s Beirut office, said: “The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the August 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port was caused by the actions and omissions of senior Lebanese officials who failed to accurately communicate the dangers posed by the ammonium nitrate, knowingly stored the material in unsafe conditions, and failed to protect the public.”
What jumps out from the report is the depth and extent of warnings over the seven years that the deadly chemicals lay in storage.
“As far back as 2014, senior Lebanese officials were being informed… ammonium nitrate is highly flammable and is used to manufacture explosives”, the report said – noting that civil servants and some senior leaders were provided with a 16-page “timeline of major disasters caused by ammonium nitrate explosions”. The report names the country’s president, prime minister and virtually every high-ranking security and cabinet official. Despite this, the investigation into the explosion, led by a Lebanese judge, has been repeatedly stymied by politicians.
In response to these reports, the EU is considering sanctions against Lebanon’s senior politicians. But, for some protestors, this is far from enough.
Hassan, a young protestor, said: “I want them to be hanged. I don’t just want two or three officials to go to prison for two to three years. The whole political class needs to be publicly executed.”
Behind all of this is the larger issue of what the ammonium nitrate was doing there in the first place and how it exploded.
Some blame Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia militia, which wields huge unofficial power throughout the country. Critics claim that militants controlled the warehouse and speculate that the material was transported to Syria for use in weapons. Others claim that a hostile power such as Israel targeted a weapons cache in the port. The truth will likely never be known. What is clear is that few believe that whoever was responsible for the devastation will ever be brought to justice.
Amid this catalogue of misery, what hope is there for Lebanon? There is some, and it is easy to see if you wander around the streets of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze – the areas of the city most affected by the blast.
In the year after the blast, a vast clean-up and reconstruction effort involving both professionals and volunteers has rebuilt most of the shattered buildings and once-destroyed businesses have reopened. Even the shelters for Syrian refugees in the deprived neighbourhood of Karantina have been repaired, highlighting that even Lebanon’s most vulnerable are not completely forgotten.
Much of the money for this work came from the international community and various non-governmental organisations, but it is an example of what can still happen in Lebanon when its divided community comes together to work for the common good. The blast and its aftermath have drawn ordinary Lebanese people together in a way that once seemed impossible in a political system that keeps them apart by design.
“What we need now,” Hassan said, “is a new, secular political system that takes us away from sects and treats us all as individuals, worthy of respect.” Are these sentiments the light at the end of a long tunnel for Lebanon?
The port of Lebanon is still a ruin. It is reminiscent of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, where one building near the site of the atomic blast survives as a monument to those killed. The rest of the area in the port remains covered in rubble and ruins, as it was on the day of the blast.
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