It was the blow that Lebanon could no longer take. Last Tuesday, an explosion in one of the port’s warehouses with unprecedented force destroyed not only the same port, but also a large part of the capital Beirut. The figures (145 dead, 5000 injured and a quarter of a million people whose homes have been badly damaged or swept away) are increasing every hour.
Anger now rules the streets of Beirut. More anger, rather. Because ordinary Lebanese were already so angry with their leaders who, through incompetence, conflicts of interest and corruption, had already pushed the country to the brink of collapse before last Tuesday’s disaster.
A few things are now known about the cause of the explosion. This was caused by the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate – the result of a fire in another warehouse. A highly explosive mixture that had been stored in the harbor on the west side of the densely populated city since 2013. A life-threatening situation, which has been warned about several times.
Yet nothing happened all these years. Not surprising when it is considered that the port of Beirut is also known among critics in the city as ‘the cave of Ali Baba and his forty robbers’.
The port is an important linchpin in the smuggling network that serves, among other things, civil war-torn Syria and Iran living under the yoke of sanctions. The smuggling is a lucrative source of income for the many sectarian groups in Lebanon, such as Iranian-affiliated Hezbollah.
Whether the ammonium nitrate was only stored in the harbor or whether something was done with it (the mixture is also used for the manufacture of bombs) is one of the many questions that needs to be answered.
The cynical consequence of the explosion is that Lebanon, which has been administratively and economically bankrupt for much longer, is once again at the center of global interest. Once an enlightened Middle East oasis abandoned by the French, the tiny country on the Mediterranean Sea, but in recent decades, protracted civil war and foreign military interventions have seen it slide into its rudderless state. Moreover, a country that, with an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a population of 5.5 million, has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.
It is obvious that Lebanon, now literally in ruins, must be supported. The Netherlands also has a role to play in this. Even before the explosion last Tuesday, the international community, including through the IMF, was investigating how to assist the declining country. In recent years, the formidable public debt has increased further and the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound has fallen by eighty percent in recent months. In a way, Lebanon was already a donor economy in which corruption can flourish.
What is characteristic of acute, massive support actions as a result of a disaster is that ‘wrong’ people profit from this financially. In Lebanon with its corrupt infrastructure, this danger is even more present when the outside world comes across with large sums of aid money unconditionally. It is therefore important that this is prevented. In this regard, French President Emmanuel Marcon, who directly visited the former colony last Thursday, has shown the way. He said Lebanon needs a new political order. Aid will not be channeled through the organs of state, but will be given to the population directly under the control of the United Nations.
This does not alter the fact that the old sectarian reflexes with their endemic conflicts of interest can reappear in the construction of the city. The challenge for the resilient people of Lebanon who revolted against the old administrative class last fall is to ensure that reconstruction proceeds in a ‘clean’ way. Then Tuesday’s blow is not the final blow for Lebanon, but the much needed and desired turn for the better.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 8 August 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next on August 8, 2020