Three weeks after the Beirut blast, Lebanon’s future is dark. Caused by up to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate irresponsibly stored in the port for more than six years, the explosion killed as many as 180 people, injured 7,000 others, and destroyed 10,000 buildings – around one-third of the city. But rather than acting as a positive jolt to the system as some hoped, the catastrophe has only thrust Lebanon deeper into crisis. With a local investigation under way that has no prospect of leading anywhere, international aid agencies are struggling to coordinate their response amid a drawn-out socio-economic collapse, a society held hostage by clientelism, and a new surge in covid-19 cases. The Lebanese ship of state is sinking, and there is a very real prospect of wider chaos.
The stakes of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut on 1 September could not be higher. While the French government has said it will not interfere in internal Lebanese affairs, France and its European allies must now push for urgently needed structural reforms – rather than a renewal of the status quo – before it is too late. The French government needs to challenge a Lebanese political establishment that is dealing with the crisis as it always has – by fighting for power behind closed doors, as if the country was not on the verge of collapse – and ensure that real change occurs.
The disaster has once again exposed the abject failure of the Lebanese state, the manner in which it is continually hollowed out, and the lack of accountability among those responsible for guiding it. The authorities appear to have known about the stockpile of highly explosive chemicals, and that they should have removed it long ago. This has enraged thousands of Lebanese, who have been taking to the streets since October to demand a renewal of the state and measures to address to their country’s socio-economic collapse. As the protesters no longer trust the political establishment, their anger and desire for revenge are taking over. They flooded into central Beirut and set up mock gallows there, while taking over the ministries of foreign affairs, economy, and energy, as well as the Association of Banks. The authorities responded by deploying hundreds of security personnel and violently repressing the protests, while declaring a state of emergency.
The grim truth is that, for many Lebanese, it is a question of not hoping for a better future but seeking to create a semblance of normalcy in a country where nothing makes sense anymore.
For their part, various Lebanese officials have accused one another of being behind the recent catastrophe and the wider collapse of the state, in an apparent attempt to divert attention away from themselves and confuse the public. Instead of suggesting solutions to the national emergency, Lebanon’s authorities and political parties remain focused on preserving their own privileges and positions of power (much as they resisted economic reform in the lead-up to the blast, aiming to secure international financial support). Citizens who are still loyal to traditional parties defend their leaders online and in their strongholds. Polarisation and civil unrest have risen to dangerous levels in a country that just witnessed one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in human history.
The Lebanese minister of the interior, Mohammed Fahmi, has opposed an international probe into the blast, promising a quick local investigation. But there is already a widespread sense that the real facts will never emerge. So far, no minister has been summoned by the investigators, and the shadow of political trade-offs has fallen on an opaque process. After a period of confusion, the investigation was transferred to the highest Lebanese judicial body: the High Judiciary Council. However, this body has only rarely handed down decisions on cases it oversees. Local Lebanese NGOs and activists, in addition to the international community, have long called for reforms to establish an independent judiciary. But this has not materialised. And, given Lebanese institutions’ lack of transparency, capacity, and expertise, what kind of justice can Lebanese citizens expect? They may wait for the government to choose a scapegoat, but it would be foolish to hope for true justice.
In the Lebanon blast, as in other catastrophes around the world, the kind of aid its victims receive in the next few months will be crucial. While hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are tending to their wounds, many are still processing what happened and have turned their eyes to international actors. At a French-organised international conference on 9 August, donors pledged a little over €250m to support Lebanon’s recovery. And shipments of medicine, equipment, and food from friendly countries arrive in Lebanon every day. But a lack of centralised coordination of this aid – due to governance failings and corruption, as well as competition between humanitarian actors, the mismanagement of data, and incomplete mapping of the damage from the explosion – are fatally impeding the response. As a result, the most vulnerable citizens are unlikely to receive the assistance they need. With Lebanon experiencing high poverty and hunger rates high even before the blast, the situation is becoming increasingly dire.
Nonetheless, Lebanese society is trying to fill the void created by the authorities. During the first few days after the blast, there appeared to be no official emergency teams on the ground. Neither the central government nor the municipal authorities intervened. Armed with brooms and shovels, young Lebanese, local professionals, and NGOs took matters into their own hands. Whether it be to open their homes to people who lost everything, distribute food, or organise crowdfunding campaigns to rebuild local businesses, Lebanese are mobilising at the grassroots level. But Lebanese society can only do so much in the face of these wider challenges and a political system that is seemingly stacked against it.
It is imperative that the European Union provide sustained support to these key actors, working around the Lebanese state wherever possible. Given that the battles fought by Lebanese NGOs are numerous and complex, they will collapse without sufficient support, hurting not just those in need but also Lebanon’s long-term prospects of development.
The grim truth is that, for many Lebanese, it is a question of not hoping for a better future but seeking to create a semblance of normalcy in a country where nothing makes sense anymore. The word “resilience”, repeatedly used to cover up the country’s deep distress in recent years, has given way to “emigration”. Those who have passports flee and those who do not take any opportunity to leave, emptying the country of its qualified workforce.
At the political level, some actors with perceived US support may see the disaster as creating a chance to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and the intervention of Macron, the country seems to be heading towards the formation of a government of national unity. But this risks maintaining the status quo, given that Lebanon has had several such governments since 2005, none of which implemented any meaningful reforms. Unless it is accompanied by fundamental changes, the move will work to the detriment of Lebanese society. It will only spare incompetent political forces from accountability and delay the inevitable: the collapse of the Lebanese state.
Maintaining the status quo will reinforce the sense of injustice that pervades Lebanese society. Protecting and negotiating with those in charge – who are responsible for the country’s decay and the recent tragedy – and preserving a judicial system that lacks independence will only increase polarisation within the country. Even if, in the short term, the situation calms down, Lebanon’s current political system is wholly unable to address the deep socio-economic challenges that generate public anger and unrest. Injustice, inequality, and corruption are so rampant that, unless members of the political establishment lead the way by implementing meaningful reforms – which would require them to loosen their grip on power – Lebanon will be hit by rising waves of civil unrest, violence, and chaos.
Europe and the broader international community should increase their support for the elements of Lebanese society that are now keeping the country afloat. And they must maintain pressure on the political establishment to respond to this stark reality by stopping political quarrels and starting to implement badly needed reforms. Such reforms would unlock international aid and, more importantly, improve the lives of millions of Lebanese.
Georges Haddad is a specialist and researcher on Lebanon. He works for the Lebanese human rights organisation ALEF and focuses on security issues and aspects of criminal justice.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.