4th of August 2020: a turning point for the Land of Cedars?

The explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4th 2020

22nd August 2020

AFP via Getty Images

The denunciation of the government’s neglect and ineptitude creates a sense of urgency for political transition.


On Tuesday 4th of August, two violent blasts coming from the port of Beirut disrupted the lives of the already shaken population, drained by an unprecedented financial crisis with a public debt representing 160% of the national GDP, combined with a currency crisis and hyperinflation that reached 90 % per annum in June (Le Figaro, 2020). 


In the blink of an eye, the Lebanese were snatched from their relatively normal lives and reminded of the fragility of their country. 


The explosions, provoking seismic waves equivalent of a magnitude 3.3 earthquake, were such that they were heard in Cyprus, 200 kilometres northwest of Beirut. 


On the 14th of August, the number of fatalities rose to more than 170, while 6,000 were left wounded and dozens were reported missing.


Within Lebanon, many first thought of a terrorist attack, they were reminded of the former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s bomb attack in 2005 and of the Hezbollah and Israel war in 2006.


On the verge of a new civil war, with virulent protests taking place since October 2019 against the dysfunctional government unable to deal with the ongoing economic and political crisis, worsened by the pandemic, the two explosions seemed too big of a coincidence. They were the coup de grâce that would lead the once called Switzerland of the Middle East into a point of no-return.


However, as the cause of the massively murderous and destructive explosions spread internationally, incredulity and anger rose within the traumatised nation. 2,750 tonnes of nitrate of ammonium, stored in a warehouse at the Beirut port, situated in the core of the capital inhabited by 2.5 million, exploded. In the same hangar, fireworks were stored, as reported by a former employee at the port, Yusuf Shehadi, to The Guardian (8 Aug. 2020). The latter were confiscated by Customs in 2010 and negligently gathered since, next to the thousands of tonnes of nitrate of ammonium, fertilisers known to be highly explosive under heat and pressure and of which the storage falls under strict regulations. 


But what was fundamentally abhorrent was the story behind the storage of highly explosive materials near the residential districts of Gemmayze, Mar Mikhaël and Achrafieh. They were stored in this warehouse since 2014 and their existence and lack of takeover was well known among government officials. The Lebanese Customs director’s office had sent no less than six letters to the country’s judiciary, urging them to deal with the chemicals (The Guardian, 2020).  


A denunciation of the government’s neglect and ineptitude


The government’s response to the dreadful events that made 300,000 of its population homeless and destroyed half of the capital? 


“I will not rest until we find the person responsible for what happened so we can hold them to account and impose the most severe punishment”, Lebanon’s Prime Minister at the time, Hassan Diab, promised on  the night of the tragic events.


President Michel Aoun shared Mr. Diab’s reaction in the aftermath of the explosions. He said that the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable, and to sanction them with the most severe punishment.”


Disregarding the fact that the government’s first reactions sound totally deprived of compassion, the question of liability that they both raised is indeed crucial in the case of Lebanon. 


As a reminder, Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy that stands up for being based on a confessional framework. The two major communities in Lebanon, Muslim and Christian, are represented proportionally throughout government and public posts; while the offices of President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament are assigned to a Maronite, Sunni and Shia representative respectively (Krayem, 2011).


Today, as the political system in Lebanon is widely regarded by its people as oligarchic and corrupted, it is relevant to recall the place of accountability in a democracy. According to Schimtter and Karl:  


“Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens” (1991). 


Indeed, by definition, the notion of democracy encompasses that of accountability. Contrary to what Lebanese leaders seem to believe about their responsibilities, their role within the national crisis is first and foremost, to recognise the political neglect that had made the destruction of thousands of lives in Beirut so easy. By not questioning their actions and by continuing to follow their own agendas, the ruling elite in Lebanon opens the door to other tragedies in the already scarred country.


Quoting Sibylle Rizk, a Lebanese journalist and the Director of Public Policy of Kulluna Irad, an NGO working on a political reform: this event is the consequence of a criminal neglect from authorities that have done nothing to stop it. We have an oligarchy that captured the state’s institutions and does not care about general interest (Rizk, 2020).


A turning point for Lebanon? 


While France has sent humanitarian aid, food and medicine to their long lasting friend in the Middle East, Lebanese President Michel Aoun was conspicuous by his absence during President Macron’s evening press conference in Beirut on the 6th of August.


A population abandoned by its rulers


In the aftermath of the disastrous explosions, the army and government’s attitudes confirmed the legitimacy of the population’s exasperation and rage. 


For the reconstruction of their homes and the assistance of those still trapped under the crushed structures, the Lebanese knew better than to count on the state, which was difficult to find at this critical stage. 


As not counting on the government has become a custom in the Land of Cedars, an extensive network of NGOs, which had been building up over the years, intervened after the 4th of August catastrophe to help the victims, along with young Lebanese volunteers.


The events’ follow-up has shown that the decision-making process in Lebanon was paralysed and definitely ripped the government from any remaining legitimacy.


Even on the international stage, Lebanese authorities were distrusted. During his press conference in Beirut, President Macron reassured Lebanese journalists that France’s help would be directly given to the Lebanese people, the NGOs and the field teams without passing through the government. Worldwide, countries assisting Lebanon also gave financial aid to NGOs rather than the state, sign of an international acknowledgement of Lebanon’s government’s corruption and ineptitude.


A turning point 


While protests in the capital had been going on since the 17th of October 2019 claiming a political reform, the disastrous explosions, another consequence of the government’s neglect, set alight the streets of the cities in Lebanon.


Not only did the tragedy confirm the government’s contempt for its people but it also revealed the Lebanese solidarity and their eagerness to fight for a legitimate and modern democratic system. 


However, following the explosions, as the protests continue to rise in the country, the question is how the Lebanese will replace this mismanaging and dysfunctional state. As of today, it is clear that the Lebanese are asking for a political transition, a reform of the system itself which was implemented by the Taif Agreement in 1989, accord that ended the Civil War (1975-1990). 


Indeed, the same people who were former warlords in the Lebanese Civil War took advantage of the confessional and sectarian system to cling to power without being held accountable for the social, political and economic impact of their mismanagement. For example, Nabih Berri, who led the Amal militia during the Civil War, has been the Speaker of Parliament for 30 years, since 1992.


Rather than unifying the state, the sectarian system lies on a community mindset which divides the country and serves the rulers, by diluting their responsibilities. 


Moreover, instead of representing communities, the sectarian system has been enabling patronage, as claimed by Sibylle Rizk in an interview given on the 11th of August on France 24. Leaders resort to their political power for the interests of a few influential figures.


Furthermore, as stressed by Emmanuel Macron on  the 6th of August press conference, the challenges for the Lebanese are to get rid of the submission of Lebanon to external powers, and to regain a legitimate national army that will serve the interests of the Lebanese exclusively. Whereas Lebanon has not had stable 24-hour electricity since the beginning of the Civil War in 1975, the Hezbollah, a Shiite party of government and armed militia, is leading a war in Syria in order to serve Iran’s interests rather than national ones. 


Even though under increased pressure from the protests members of the Lebanese government are resigning, it is necessary that the Lebanese organise a new political system and build a modern and transparent democracy. 


The new political structure should allow the Lebanese to directly elect leaders who are committed to ensuring the will of the people. The election of government members should be based first of all on merit and competence. Their actions should be kept transparent and clear lines should be drawn around responsibilities, so that the new leaders can be held accountable for the decision-making.


In a nutshell, as a consequence of the unprecedented economic, social and financial crisis, and of the disastrous double explosions that reflected the government’s criminal neglect, Lebanon has reached a turning point.


Protests all over the country now have to be further translated into a transparent, fair and modern democracy, and this is all the more important given that the port, on which Lebanon’s economy relies, needs to be rapidly rebuilt.



Further Reading

Chulov M., Safi M. and Beaumont P. (2020). Beirut explosion: former port worker says fireworks stored in hangar. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/07/beirut-explosion-former-port-worker-says-fireworks-stored-in-hangar [Accessed 7 Aug. 2020].

Krayem, H. (2011). Lebanon: Confessionalism and the Crisis of Democracy. [PDF]. p.68. Available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/17232620/Lebanon-Confessionalism-and-the-C-risis-of-Democracy [Accessed 8 Aug. 2020].

Macron, E. (2020). Beyrouth: Macron prend la parole sur place [Beirut: Macron makes a statement on site]. BFMTV. [online] Available at: https://www.bfmtv.com/politique/l-integralite-du-discours-d-emmanuel-macron-au-liban_VN-202008060196.html [Accessed 6 Aug. 2020].

Nodé-Langlois, F. (2020). Avant le cataclysme, une économie déjà anéantie [Before the disaster, an economy already shattered]. Le Figaro, p.8. 

Rizk, S. (2020). “Ce qui commence à naître au Liban, c’est bien l’émergence d’une opposition politique” estime la journaliste Sibylle Rizk [What is starting to appear in Lebanon, is truly the emergence of a political opposition, the journalist Sibylle Rizk states]. Franceinfo. [online]. Available at: https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/proche-orient/liban/explosions-a-beyrouth/ce-qui-commence-a-naitre-au-liban-c-est-bien-l-emergence-d-une-opposition-politique-estime-la-journaliste-sibylle-rizk_4069261.html [Accessed 7 Aug.2020].

Rizk, S. (2020). La démission de Hassan Diab “ne résout rien à l’équation qui se pose aux Libanais” [Hassan Diab’s resignation does not solve in any way the equation that Lebanese are facing]. France 24. [online]. Available at: https://www.france24.com/fr/20200811-au-liban-la-d%C3%A9mission-de-hassan-diab-ne-r%C3%A9sout-rien-%C3%A0-l-%C3%A9quation-qui-se-pose-aux-libanais?fbclid=IwAR3NrADQ-y0_rYd4MrxTvi4aa6WmbRKNz7lrCZsg8F_uo_EfaGPJqBWNZik [Accessed 11 Aug. 2020].

Rose, S. (2020). Au Liban, la colère monte après l’explosion qui a ravagé Beyrouth [In Lebanon, anger rises following the explosion which devastated Beirut]. Le Figaro, p.8.

Safi, M. (2020). Beirut blast: protesters demand political change as Emmanuel Macron tours city. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/06/beirut-explosion-death-toll-rises-wounded [Accessed 7 Aug. 2020].

Schmitter, P. and Karl, T.L. (1991). What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not. Journal of Democracy, 2(3), p. 76.

The Economist. (2016). Lebanon – Census and sensibility. [online]. Available at: https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2016/11/05/census-and-sensibility [Accessed 10 Aug. 2020]

The Guardian. (2020). Beirut explosion: cruise ship owner sues ‘those responsible’, as more protests loom. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/08/beirut-explosion-cruise-ship-owner-sues-those-responsible-as-more-protests-loom [Accessed 8 Aug. 2020].

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