Beirut port's grain silos and the area around it on August 5, 2020, one day after a massive explosion hit the heart of the Lebanese capital. - (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Out With a Bang

It’s the end of the road for Lebanon

Artillery Row

Lebanon’s prolonged plight has cascaded in so many crashing waves that just describing it is now as nauseatingly cliché as referring to its capital as the “Paris of the Middle East” used to be before it became merely the Beirut of Lebanon. In just the past year, the national toboggan ride cheerlessly careened into an unsolved banking crisis, uncontrollable forest fires, an unsuccessful popular revolution, an unrestrained economic meltdown, unchecked Covid-19, unmastered hyperinflation, and an unending national security crisis. In March, Lebanon’s Hezbollah-backed Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a dour former colleague of mine at the American University of Beirut, where I was on the faculty for eleven years and where he had a reputation for being unable to control his classes, solemnly announced that Lebanon’s government can no longer protect its citizens.

More recently, Lebanon’s simmering conflict with Israel has flared up in armed clashes. Estimates suggest that about 75 percent of the population is or will soon be living in poverty. Electricity is down to four hours a day or less. Medical supplies, almost all of which are imported and billed in USD, are expected to run out by the middle of August. My former university colleagues, paid in Lebanon’s collapsing currency, are now earning only a few hundred dollars a month in real terms. Last month the university’s widely reviled president, a physician who was sued for medical malpractice prior to embarking on his career in academic administration, heroically fired 850 medical centre employees mid-pandemic due to a budget crisis and called in the Lebanese army and security forces for back up when the dismissals were announced. Prolonged government meetings with the IMF and bilateral talks with individual developed nations have failed to secure any foreign aid, the major stumbling block being the Lebanese government and banking sector’s unwillingness to open their books amid allegations that transparency would reveal several decades of massive malfeasance. 

After months of rising anger, cynicism, helplessness, and tipping points that never quite tipped, people wondered when Lebanon would finally explode. Fate obliged. On August 4, two massive explosions destroyed Beirut’s port facilities and wrecked the surrounding neighbourhoods, which used to be popular nightlife destinations and tony residential sections of town. Shock waves shattered glass up to fifteen miles away and damaged the airport, the remote and foreboding U.S. embassy, and an estimated 90 percent of Beirut’s hotels.  The blast was reportedly felt as far away as Cyprus, over 150 miles to the West. My old flat on Beirut’s once elegant corniche, the former home of journalist-turned-hostage Terry Anderson, lost windows. The front doors of the university’s main building, where my office was located, were blasted out of their frame. Friends, students, and colleagues lit up my phone with videos of their wrecked homes and offices, along with some really gruesome scenes that you will never see in the mainstream media. As of this writing, at least 135 people are dead, with more than 5,000 injured and an estimated 300,000 homeless. The blast registered a magnitude of 4.5 on the Richter scale and is estimated to have packed about 20 percent of the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. An Arabic headline not inaccurately proclaimed the disaster “Beirutshima.”

Conjecture immediately started flying. An initial reaction held that it must have been an Israeli attack, retaliation for the recent clashes between Israel and Hezbollah. The government then floated a story that no one believed claiming that a fireworks factory had exploded. The foreign press corps signalled their profession’s mandatory virtues and congratulated themselves for continuing to file stories from their ruined hovels while parroting the wandering official narrative and denouncing any hint of ill intent lest readers be so politically incorrect as to associate the Middle East with terrorism (and if you believe there is no connection, I have a fireworks factory in Beirut to sell you). At least one especially dim woketard among them even found the time to decry reportage by white males, whose unfortunate skin colour and Y chromosomes cause them to focus on things like facts rather than feelings.

More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling for the country’s return to colonial rule

Gradually something that at least sounded more truthful was pieced together. The explosive materials turn out to have been 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a volatile fertiliser material than can easily be used for explosives (the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, involved two tons of ammonium nitrate). Beirut’s port authority, which is controlled by Hezbollah with reportedly sparse government oversight, appears to have impounded it from a Russian-owned freighter that was detained for safety reasons in 2013, and, never reclaimed, stored it in a port facility ever since. Public records have revealed that the port officials informed Lebanon’s notoriously unreliable judicial authorities of its presence on at least six occasions up to 2017. True to form in a country where even simple civil lawsuits can go on for decades, the courts took no action.

The timing of the explosion completes the perfect storm of Lebanon’s collapse, which now appears to be inescapable. It also came suspiciously close to an event of major political significance. Just three days after the explosion, the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon was due to hand down final verdicts in the trials of four Hezbollah associates charged with the 2005 assassination bombing of Lebanon’s widely popular late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 other people. The evidence implicates them deeply, and the political fallout in these turbulent times will be devastating for their party, its Iranian sponsors, and the weak Lebanese government they support. Rafik Hariri’s son Saad, a former prime minister and outspoken opponent of Hezbollah and the current Hezbollah-backed government, maintains a residence close to the port and may have been a target. He survived, but the secretary-general of Lebanon’s opposition Kataeb Party, another major Hezbollah enemy, was killed in the blast. Unsurprisingly, the Special Tribunal’s verdicts are now postponed.

Regardless of the facts, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is the end of the road for Lebanon. Even if the blast were a pure coincidence innocently resulting from a tragic accident, the level of public trust is now so low that hardly anyone outside the easily manipulated expat bubble would believe it, yielding public discussion to a mess of conspiracy theories that will likely never be put to rest. The practical effects are equally horrific. Among the facilities destroyed by the blast were Lebanon’s grain silos, vital installations for a bread-dependent country that imports 90 percent of its wheat. The remaining stocks are projected to last for a month, whereas national food security depends on a three-month supply. The damage to the other facilities is so catastrophic that essentially nothing can now be imported through the capital’s port even if Lebanon could pay for imports, which it cannot. Millions of dollars of international emergency assistance is now on the way, but the tens of billions in structural financial aid that Lebanon needs to solve its rapidly worsening financial crisis will remain elusive. Much of the estimated $3-5 billion in damage to Beirut’s already decayed urban landscape is simply beyond the country’s means to repair.

Much of Lebanon’s angry and immiserated population is armed and has little to lose apart from a long-term future of dire poverty in shattered homes under the thumb of a failed state that does ever less for them. Within 48 hours of the blast, more than 50,000 people signed an online petition calling for the country’s return to French colonial rule (which ended in 1943) for a period of ten years. Lebanon’s governing elite, which has no lone all-powerful dictator to scapegoat, long ago realised that conceding any amount of their political power will not just turn them out of government positions, but also imperil their economic wealth, pretensions to community and sectarian leadership, personal and family honour, legal freedom, and probably their children’s and grandchildren’s futures. Between them frets a pallid and feckless intelligentsia that would like to believe they are ‘progressive’ and ‘Westernised’, but are usually neither and, perhaps worse, have no power, influence, appeal, or confidence, and, if they go too far, are easily bought off or intimidated. Participants in last autumn’s failed protests, which those callow types could neither predict nor lead, are now all over social media calling for blood, revenge, and guillotines. They might just get them this time.

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