Written By Hala Zeidan
August 6, 2020
From the soul of her people she makes wine,
From their sweat she makes bread and jasmine.
So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?
-The Lebanese singer, Fayrouz
Today, Japan commemorates tragedy in Hiroshima, the first nuclear attack in history which occurred on August 6, 1945.
A few days ago, on August 4, 2020, 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon exploded. As a result, 157 people died, hundreds more are still missed, 5,000 were injured, and more than 300,000 Lebanese lost their homes. Beirut’s explosion is the third most destructive one in a city after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Videos circulating on social media show an explosion followed by a mushroom cloud ten minutes later, leaving the city of Beirut in ruins. According to the Minister of Interior Mohammad Fahmi and journalists Riad Kobeissi and Salem Zahran, the explosive ammonium nitrate was confiscated from aboard a cargo ship heading to Zambia in 2014 after having to stop at the Port of Beirut due to technical issues. Based on Riad Kobeissi’s investigation, the interim relief judge ordered the Lebanese government to store the confiscated chemicals in a secure and government-supervised location. However, the incompetent and corrupt government officials, including the directors of the port and customs services — who were aware of the danger that the stored chemicals posed to the public — neglected the judge’s order and allowed them to be stored next to a firecrackers warehouse.
The exact cause of the blast is still unknown. Investigations are still ongoing. However, speculations were made that the Israeli government was behind the first explosion in the firecrackers warehouse which then ignited the nitrate ammonium, claiming that airplanes were seen and heard before the explosion. This has not been corroborated. Others blame solely the incompetent and corrupt politicians of mismanagement and neglect. Plainly said, our irresponsible political leaders should be held accountable for the massacre of more than 157 Lebanese people and the destruction of our capital.
Since October 2019, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people, across all seventeen religions and swaths of life, have protested in the streets against the corrupt politicians and ex-warlords who participated in the bloody Lebanese civil war of 1975-1989, and who have been in power for more than thirty years. This political class’ mismanagement of the 15 October 2019 forest fires that spread across the country amid a heatwave and strong winds (while three firefighting helicopters remained grounded due to lack of maintenance), as well as dire economic and social conditions pushed the Lebanese people to the streets. They demanded the resignation of former prime minister Saad Hariri’s government, the appointment of technocrat ministers who are not affiliated with any political party, early parliamentary elections, and an end to the Lebanese consociational political system that is based on power sharing between Christians and Muslims. This inefficient political system that has been in place since the 1943 National Pact, and which was reiterated in the 1989 Taif agreement that has ended the Lebanese civil war has led to an increase in corruption and patronage under the guise of national unity. Today, Lebanon ranks 138th among 180 countries on the corruption index based on the Lebanese Transparency Association.
As I was walking towards Dorchester Square in Montreal yesterday, where a vigil was held to mourn the lives of the Beirut blast’s victims, I promised myself not to cry, to remain strong and resilient in the face of those who responsible for the plight of my people. However, when a Lebanese Canadian middle-aged woman screamed in the vigil crying and saying that she loves Lebanon and that she wanted to go back although she also loves Canada, I, and many others around me, could not hold our tears back any longer. We cried together, holding each other tight, thinking of those who lost their lives for a corrupt political class that does not represent the Lebanese people’s aspirations and values.
Since the resignation of former prime minister Hariri in 2019 and the appointment of prime minister Hassan Diab’s new cabinet ministers, Lebanon has been isolated from the Arab world and the international community. Its pleadings to the Arab world for financial assistance had fallen on deaf ears and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditioned its financial aid on serious and extensive reforms namely in the electricity sector that accounts for half of the Lebanese national debt. Although the international community, through the IMF, can play a pivotal role in forcing the corrupt politicians to initiate reforms, it is also important that the IMF does not impose austerity measures on the most vulnerable and impoverished communities in Lebanon by, for example, increasing the taxes on basic necessities that they are already struggling to afford. Also, the IMF should force the Lebanese government to respect human rights and the freedom of speech rather than utilise its defamation laws to silence critical and opposing voices. According to Human Rights Watch, the Cybercrimes Bureau in Lebanon investigated 1,451 defamation cases in 2018, an 81 percent increase from 2017.
After the Beirut explosion, numerous countries including France, Turkey, Canada, Britain, Australia, the United States, Iran, and Qatar, pledged to offer Lebanon humanitarian and medical assistance. The Australian and Canadian governments have promised to send millions of dollars to the Lebanese Red Cross and the World Food Programme. It is extremely important that other countries follow suit in directly providing civil society organizations much-needed help because the Lebanese people do not entrust their corrupt government to manage the current humanitarian crisis that it had itself caused.
Will the tragic Beirut explosion end the isolation of Lebanon from the international community? Can we say that the victims of the blast did not die in vain as they instigated a new wave of much-needed humanitarian assistance and international attention? Or is this just me trying to make sense of the non-sense massacre of my people?
As Lebanon was facing its worst socioeconomic and financial crisis in its history — hyperinflation, the depletion of the Lebanese Central Bank’s reserves, and an increase in COVID-19 cases, the Beirut explosion further exacerbated Lebanon’s dire situation. Lebanon’s corrupt confessional system also referred to as a Troika system in which three political leaders: the Christian Maronite president, the Sunni Muslim prime minister, and the Shia Muslim speaker of the parliament appoint top administrative and senior political appointments without regard to the institutions, years of corruption and incompetent governance, the absence of Public Budget law proposals from 2006 to 2017, and a destructive 2016 financial engineering by the Lebanese Central Bank aimed at attracting foreign capital in exchange for high interest rates, led to Lebanon’s current financial crisis. According to Steve H. Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics at the Johns Hopkins University, Lebanon is the first Middle Eastern country to experience a hyperinflation. Also, Lebanon is host to a disproportionate number of refugees, and caring for more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 500,000 Palestinians is an additional burden on Lebanon’s weak infrastructure and financial capabilities.
Lebanon, the once called Switzerland of the Middle East, the bridge between the East and the West, and the most democratic amongst its Arab counterparts: will I ever see you again? Will you hold still today just like you did during the civil war? Will this explosion be the beginning of a new era in Lebanon?
The Lebanese people need our help. There are numerous non-governmental organizations helping communities in Beirut rebuild their homes, providing urgent shelters to 300,000 Lebanese, clearing up rubble and glass from the streets, and distributing water and food. Amongst these NGOs are the Lebanese Red Cross (https://secure.redcross.ca/registrant/donate.aspx?eventid=311494&langpref=en-CA), Beit el Baraka (https://www.beitelbaraka.org), Offre Joie (https://linktr.ee/offrejoie), Bassma (http://www.bassma.org/DonateNow/donateonline), Min Beib La Beib (https://fundly.com/min-beib-la-beib), and Impact Lebanon (https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/lebanon-relief?utm_term=bQxPvk9B7).
If you are Lebanese and want to talk, please know that you are not alone. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about anything. If you are non-Lebanese and would like to discuss Lebanon’s financial and humanitarian crisis, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.
Fact-Checked by Patrick Iskandar
Transparency International (2009). National Integrity System Study Lebanon 2009. https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/2009_Lebanon_NIS_EN.pdf
Human Rights Watch (2019). There is a Price to Pay: The Criminalization of Peaceful Speech in Lebanon. https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/11/15/there-price-pay/criminalization-peaceful-speech-lebanon