Explosion in Beirut Amid Increasing Political Turmoil
Last week’s explosion in Beirut’s port caused a wave of destruction across the city, killing some 200 people, injuring over 6000 more and forcing at least 200,000 people from their homes. The impact affects Lebanon’s economic crisis, food security and the future of the political system itself.
An estimated 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate - a chemical compound used in fertilizers and a common component of explosives which is banned in numerous countries due to the risk it poses - was identified as the cause of the explosion. The compound had been left in a port warehouse since 2014 after being seized by customs authorities, despite warnings from port officials that its storage was unsafe.
Whilst Beirut has experienced numerous explosions - from 15 years of civil war (1975 to 1990), to the assassination of their former prime minister in 2005 - this blast was the largest by far. The explosion caused a wave of destruction across more than a seven kilometre radius, sent a vast cloud of toxic gas into the air and was even heard on the island of Cyprus more than 240 kilometres away.
Lebanese authorities have said they are looking into what caused the ammonium nitrate to ignite, however Prime Minister Michel Aoun - an ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement - has dismissed as “impossible” that it was caused by a blast from a Hezbollah arms deposit.
As people searched the wreckage for missing loved ones, the grief and shock built into anger at the corruption that allowed such a tragedy to take place, with many taking to social media to express their anger. The revelation that the hazardous material had been left like a ticking time bomb in the heart of the city served as proof of the corruption that has allowed such incompetence and negligence to fester within the Lebanese state.
Corruption in Lebanon is widespread. Since its independence in 1943, the country has been ruled by a confessional power-sharing system, which distributes high level offices by religious affiliation. For decades, the country has been ruled by a small group of unaccountable politicians and oligarchic political dynasties who have, with the help of sectarianism and clientelism, clung to power and accrued masses of wealth, institutionalising sectarianism and breeding corruption. The system fuels patronage networks and leads to citizens relying on leaders within their own groups for services which should be provided by the state, further undermining the country’s governance system. According to the Lebanese Transparency Association, this system has created a “rigid political system based on the search for compromise between political elites that use the patronage networks resulting from the consociational structure to advance their own interests.”
Since October last year, Lebanon’s streets have regularly been full of protesters calling for the removal of these elites, with slogans including “the people want the downfall of the regime” and “all of them means all of them”. The protests have decried all parties as complicit in the system, with activists calling for complete removal of the main sectarian figureheads in the country. A new round of protests took place last weekend following the blast, with demonstrators storming several ministries. Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government resigned last week, with Diab blamingendemic corruption for the explosion. He said that he knew full well that corruption was widespread in the country, and criticised ruling parties for continuously obstructing any reform efforts his government put forward.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets anew over the weekend, congregating near a symbolic wooden frame with the heads of many of Lebanon’s ruling elites hanging from nooses. The message was clear: a change in government would not be enough, the protesters are calling for a complete overhaul of the political class.
Beirut’s explosion was not the only motive for the protestors, but merely the latest tragedy to result from the country’s political dysfunction. To add insult to injury, the country’s dysfunctional government makes it impossible to hold those responsible accountable and Lebanon has a track record of inability of solving major crimes including bombings.
The country’s economy has been adversely affected by political instability. Before the explosion, the country was already in the midst of economic collapse with some economists predicting that the poverty rate could rise as high as a staggering 80% (ref). In the midst of a currency crisis, Lebanon has seen extreme price hikes on basic goods, with some prices tripling or even quadrupling. The value of the Lebanese pound plummeted late last year, after years of mismanagement of debt and government corruption, leaving almost half of the population struggling with food insecurity. The official exchange rate is L£1,500 to the dollar, meanwhile the black market rate has reached L£7,000.
The destruction of Beirut’s ports will inevitably have further far-reaching consequences on the already strained economy. Speaking to Reuters, the national director of World Vision - a refugee aid group - said: “The effects are severe. The harbour is destroyed, and the harbour was one of the main gates for imported food”.
Lebanon imports over two thirds of the food consumed. Lebanese authorities are hoping Tripoli’s port will be able to help mitigate the impact of the blast, however the port - 80 kilometres north of Beirut - has a much lower capacity than that of Beirut. While shortages in food do not seem to be imminent, the price of food could climb even higher.
The explosion seems to have breathed new life into demonstrations against a system which has lost the support of its people.