The political and economic decline in Lebanon was eating away at the public’s confidence in its government. On Tuesday, however, any hope was dashed as physical destruction and death were added to a list of Lebanon’s troubles. Symbolic, in a way, the explosion in Beirut marked the end of Lebanon’s spiral. The once abundant, vibrant country is officially approaching rock bottom.
All photos are of Beirut after the explosion on August 4.
The Lebanese people have been protesting their government for months. The perfect storm of economic mismanagement, political corruption, and the mounting COVID crisis have empowered the Lebanese to join across sectarian lines to call for reform. Last Tuesday, any lingering hope in the government’s ability to uphold its most vital duty — safety and security — was blown up. The corruption and mismanagement of the Lebanese government allowed years of oversight in maintaining essential safety protocols.
After spending six years at the Beirut port, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited. It was unloaded in 2014, and then stored next to one of the most important sources of food and GDP for the import-dependent country. The ensuing blast has killed at least 163 people and left thousands injured. Property within a six-mile radius suffered damage, and the port and surrounding neighborhoods were decimated. From miles away, a relative of mine felt the blast as her bed moved across the room. A friend told me, “We felt the ground move . . . then we heard a huge explosion.” The explosion was so powerful that he thought it was nearby, only to realize he lives almost 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away. The aftermath is shocking. My relative lamented: “I can’t even describe how painful the situation is . . . they’re still looking for the dead . . . mothers are crying in the streets.” Part of Beirut is “on the floor,” she told me.
How did this devastating explosion occur? The government, my friend told me: “They let this happen.”
Ammonium nitrate (AN) is well known to be volatile and dangerous if not stored properly. AN was the compound used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 169 people and injured 467. This blast used two U.S. tons of the compound; the blast in Beirut involved over a thousand times more. Regardless of the source of ignition, the government is largely to blame for allowing this highly dangerous substance to exist without proper storage and monitoring. Years of corruption among the political class effectively eroded any channels for safety and order in the country.
According to the Washington Post, as well as anecdotes from the Lebanese people, the AN reached the port after being confiscated from a cargo ship headed for Mozambique. The detour to Beirut was unplanned, reportedly because of a technical issue that put the AN onboard at risk. The AN remained on the docked ship for auction or disposal but had been sitting there since 2013. Customs officials highlighted the danger to government higher-ups for years, only to be ignored. Letters from these officials highlighted the unstable storage conditions and general danger of the AN.
Suspicions are rising around Hezbollah, an American-designated terrorist organization and political party. The group has a huge amount of influence on the comings and goings in the port, often smuggling arms from Iran and other contraband through the Port of Beirut. While not directly linked to the irresponsible storage of the AN that caused Tuesday’s explosion, Hezbollah has been tied to terrorist attacks that used the compound. Moreover, according to local knowledge, Hezbollah was blocking and controlling access to the area where the AN was stored.
Lebanon’s government — which includes Hezbollah — knew about and allowed the irresponsible storage of this volatile cargo. Regardless of Hezbollah’s involvement in Tuesday’s explosion, the government was complicit in the constant danger at the port, despite many warnings. The Lebanese government’s norm of corruption is wholly to blame for this crisis.
Recently, I discussed the dire economic effect of corruption on the country, causing hyperinflation and shortages of food, medicine, and essential supplies. The government was effectively running a Ponzi scheme, pocketing money from the central bank instead of using funds to provide essential services to the Lebanese people: electricity, trash collection, law enforcement, and the list goes on.
Lebanon’s defunct government structure inherently breeds mismanagement: “The sectarian and communitarian regime is to blame,” said a friend. The Lebanese confessional system pins sect leaders against each other, creating gridlock. Leaders also prioritize the needs of their cronies and interest groups. Even a terrorist group is able to operate under this system. Where all sects align, however, is in using their power for self-enrichment over the well-being of the Lebanese people. One friend shared: “They let this happen . . . corrupt politicians . . . all of them, Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Druze politicians.”
The ineffectiveness of this system was always palpable. During my time in Lebanon for family visits or tourism, it’s always been abundantly clear that the center would not hold for much longer. Lebanon, though beautiful and lively, was dysfunctional at every level. From going through checkpoints for opposing militias, to swerving through horrific traffic, to losing electricity and water for hours on end, there was always a sense of internal decay, only disguised by the hospitality and vibrancy of the Lebanese people.
From my visits, one memory sticks out: When visiting the Roman sites at Byblos, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, I was dumbfounded by the lack of security measures in place to protect the stunning ruins. People were climbing on the sites, touching whatever they pleased, and undoubtedly taking small pieces of rubble as memorabilia. At the nearby ocean cliffs, there was no guard rail, no warning of the danger below. I struggled to understand how such an important place could be discarded by the Lebanese government and left in such a dangerous state.
For years I have waved off these thoughts as silly worries, consequences of the big-government mentality and nitty-gritty bureaucratic norms I’ve grown accustomed to as an American. To me, Lebanon’s haphazard handling of artifacts, traffic laws, and infrastructure were whimsical aspects of a free-spirited nation. Growing up, my family would always joke about how much more fun we would be having in Lebanon, a practically mythical land without rules. Now, in the wake of disaster, it’s clear that the Lebanese were trapped in an indifferent, self-serving system, one unwilling to protect its own people, let alone its historical sites. Lawlessness comes at a cost.
With any lingering hope in the government shattered, the Lebanese have created their own crisis-management systems and are relying on humanitarian aid. Different friends have told me they have spent the past days going to Beirut and helping where they can. One relative, who spent her day volunteering and distributing supplies, commented that it’s the Lebanese people who are cleaning up the rubble: “You see no one from the municipality or the government.”
Citizens are also opening up their homes for the estimated 300,000 citizens who have been displaced. Instagram pages such as “Open Houses Lebanon” are connecting citizens in need with places of shelter. A relative in Beirut noted that there is “free food everywhere.” The response is extremely fitting; despite the selfishness of their policymakers, the Lebanese people are notoriously welcoming, ready to share food and drink with anyone in need. They have heroically channeled their anger into action: “It’s crazy how everything looks so dead . . . yet so alive at the same time,” my relative said.
But this anger is reaching a critical level. Beirut has been no stranger to protest in the past months, many chanting “thawra,” or “revolution,” as they called for a new government amidst an economic and health-care crisis. Now add death and destruction to the list. After Tuesday, this public opposition will be fueled by an ultimate sense of despair and betrayal by the government. Government resignations and heated protests are just a glimpse of what is to come.
Tuesday’s blast was the most powerful ever experienced in Lebanon’s capital. Lebanon suffered a 15-year civil war and has been in the crossfire between Hezbollah, Israel, and Syria for years, always wary of external threats. Yet on August 4, it was the country’s own government that brought Beirut to its knees. But I see hope in the rubble. Fully recognizing the ineptitude of their government, the Lebanese people are joining together to pick up the pieces.