Why the Lebanon’s imploding system of government couldn’t have coped with the Beirut blast
— 4 minute read — By Daisy Olyett
On 4th August, Beirut encountered a disaster of such proportion that over 150 people have died, over 5,000 were injured and countless buildings in and around Beirut have become shells of the homes they once were. The blast occurred in the early evening, as the people of Beirut made their way home from work and prepared for their evening out; as customers filled the lively restaurant quarter of the city, no one could have predicted what would happen just 200 metres away in warehouse 12. Unknown to Lebanese authorities, large quantities of ammonium nitrate were being unsafely stored in the Port of Beirut, which turned a small fire into a large explosion releasing a mushroom cloud which engulfed the city in seconds.
Despite the clear devastation that the Lebanese people have endured after this nuclear-scale blast, their government continues to deny all claims of corruption and wrongdoing where government officials have used their power for personal gain. In addition to this, the coronavirus and an economic crisis has hit the Lebanon hard, making it even more challenging to resolve a state of emergency. To the West, this explosion may be seen as the “beginning of the end” for the Lebanese economy and its democracy, but the civil unrest that we are witnessing half a world away has more deep-seated roots than previously thought.
Situated between Israel and Syria on the Mediterranean Coast, it is clear to see how quickly religion and politics can blur into one in the Lebanon. The country uses representatives from different sects of Islam, Christianity and Judaism to inform all political decisions; whilst this may seem a religiously diverse council, it gives almost authoritarian rule to the government who decide in accordance with their religious beliefs. Discrepancies within the government and its shortfalls have also left the Lebanese economy vulnerable to exploitation by energy giants who seek to profit off the Lebanon’s struggle to source electricity. Daily power cuts have stalled the nation’s response to the coronavirus and families must now rely on backyard generators to keep their lights on. This financial crisis has been spread across global news for some years now, but foreign investors cannot rely on the Lebanon as a worthy investment whilst militant groups like Hezbollah control vast militias on their land threatening war on Israel.
The country’s most recent economic decline last October led to the decision to tax Whatsapp calls, but was quickly revoked after a series of protests which resulted in a mass of cases of police brutality. Furthermore, radical militant groups including Hezbollah refused to accept responsibility for their part in the economic crisis and were quick to silence anyone who disagreed through the use of brute force as well as propaganda. The reluctance of any nation, group or government to take responsibility for the crisis has brought the Lebanese economy to the brink of destruction, as the Lebanese pound falls to the value of less than a thousandth of the US dollar. Then to face the largest combustion of ammonium nitrate the world has seen in its capital city, the Lebanon was in no fit state to provide the care and aid that the people of Beirut needed.
The blast only inflated the issues that have been brewing below the surface for the Lebanon, like foreign debt from importing the majority of its food supply, which will now sky rocket as the blast at the start of August obliterated wheat silos in Beirut. This adds to growing concerns that poverty rates could climb by 15% due to the blast, to 50% of the Lebanese population.
Since the end of civil war thirty years ago, the country strives to combat issues such as religious radicalism, and is home to 150,000 Syrian refugees as well as 27,000 Palestinians. But the religious sects that control the government still prove problematic, as they polarise opinion and often act in the interest of their own religious sects. In the aftermath of the blast, these religious divisions continue to provide another obstacle to overcome, on top of their collapsing economy and the current global pandemic.
Families continue to sleep in their homes with no windows or doors to offer any reassurance of safety, and Beirut’s refugee community find themselves searching for a haven once more. Governments within the Middle East and in the West have become desensitised to violence and destruction in the Arab world; so whilst the Lebanese government struggles to provide for those affected by the Beirut blast, it is vital that agents of humanitarianism and democracy offer aid to the people of Lebanon urgently.