Lebanon was already a nation in need of international aid and a functioning political system. The devastation caused by the August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut has turned those needs into critical essentials.
More than 170 people were killed and 6000 wounded by the detonation of ammonium nitrate, stored in suspicious circumstances in port warehouses. About 300,000 residents are homeless, with repairs estimated to cost up to $15 billion. Beyond the loss of life and devastation is the crippling disruption: the port connected the nation to the world, handling around 60% of all imports, including food and medicine. Silos were destroyed, resulting in loss of more than 85% of grain.
This is an immediate crisis, but it has deep roots. The economic and political problems facing Lebanon date back to independence in 1943 and the creation of the country’s unique system of governance.
Stalemate and failure
Labelled the “Paris of the Middle East” in the 1960s, Lebanon was the financial hub of the Middle East, and it gained notoriety and large swathes of tourism through vast amounts of oil money. But from 1975, the nation was gripped by a 15-year civil war. Israeli, American, Syrian, and Iranian intervention fed the conflict, with a disruptive legacy still present today. Since 2011, Lebanon has taken in 1.5 million refugees from the conflict in neighbouring Syria. The newcomers make up more than 20% of the Lebanese population.
This social and political mix is on a backdrop of religious diversity and the principle of sectarian balance in government, in a country of Shia Muslims (27% of religious adherents), Sunni Muslims (27%), and Christians (40%) as well as a significant Druze minority (5.6%). The President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the National Assembly a Shia Muslim.
This sectarian balance was shattered by the civil war, and again in jeopardy after the assassination of tycoon and Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005. Hariri had “put the country back on the international financial map” and overseen the revival of central Beirut and Lebanon’s tourism industry. His killing by Hezbollah members turned the country’s political kaleidoscope: while Syria was forced to withdraw its occupying military, the US, Iran, and Gulf countries all looked to bolster their positions. Hezbollah, the “Future Movement” now nominally led by Hariri’s son Saad, and Christian politician Michel Aoun manoeuvred for power.
The Doha Agreement of 2008 tried to reconcile the factions, with both Hariri and Hezbollah in the Government. But the coalition was tenuous — Lebanon went 12 years without a budget, 9 years without Parliamentary elections, and 2 1/2 years without a Government until Aoun became President in October 2016.
The failure of government has extended through society and the economy. The inability to collect rubbish for months in 2015-2016 led to mass protests in Beirut, which recurred over poor public services and accountability. Fueling by a banking crisis, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 80% of its value since October 2019, adding to the 45% of the Lebanese population below the poverty line.
A recent UN commission said more than half of Lebanon’s population may not be able to meet basic food needs by the end of 2020. Annual inflation is expected to reach 50%, compared with 2.9% in 2019.
The descent into economic crisis has been compounded by the Coronavirus pandemic, with more than 16,000 cases and 155 deaths. The government’s mismanagement has led to an estimated $1.3 billion owed to medical facilities since 2011. Hospital staff have raised concerns about the inadequate response to contain the virus and to stop the spread of infection. They have largely been ignored.
After the port, three of Beirut’s major hospitals are out of action. Another 25 are deemed not functional by the World Health Organization, including St. George Hospital, one of the three leading medical centres in Lebanon.
Since the blast, Coronavirus has been resurgent. Daily cases reach 628 on August 21, and continue to soar. The WHO has appealed for $76 million to provide medical equipment, food, and resources. International donors have pledged more than $253 million.
But aid is not enough. The port explosion has exposed the failing system that governs Lebanon. The system of sectarian balance to maintain peaceful coexistence has again failed. Years of inadequate measures and a corrupt leadership have risen from the rubble.
But from where will the essential reforms come? The desire might be for change to come from the Lebanese people themselves. However, there appears to be no space in the system for that, even if protests surge.
The Government resigned four weeks ago. It is still in place, with no sign of effective action as factions vie to maintain their influence and share of public resources.
On the day of the blast, a man in his early 20s nursed his wrist, blood streaming from a glass cut.
“We’re cursed,” he said.
He was referring not only to the explosion: “Even if this was an accident, it’s the last thing we could afford.”