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Corruption brought Lebanon to its knees. The explosion was a coup de grace

Before the country's economic collapse – and the Covid-19 pandemic – really came to bear, there were mass protests. That anger is bound to return, stronger than ever

Richard Hall
Wednesday 05 August 2020 19:15 BST
'Long and dire' economic recovery for Beirut without port, says expert

To truly understand the lasting impact of the explosion that tore through the heart of Lebanon’s capital on Tuesday, it’s important to turn back the clock to the day before.

Before thousands of windows were shattered across the city and the hills beyond, Lebanon had already endured a series of shock waves that left it transformed beyond all recognition.

Before an untold number of livelihoods were lost, the country was already in the midst of an unprecedented economic collapse that had destroyed its middle class and forced the poor into destitution. Some economists predict the poverty rate could rise to as high as 80 per cent.

Before Beirut was plunged into darkness by the explosion, much of the country was lucky to receive more than a few hours of electricity a day due to the cash-stricken government’s inability to afford enough fuel. On the morning of the blast, dozens of protesters had stormed the energy ministry in protest over increased power rationing.

Before the blast sent cancer patients fleeing from their wards in the badly damaged hospitals, those medical facilities were already overwhelmed by a pandemic that was worsening by the day. The country had just a week ago reimposed a lockdown amid another spike in cases.

Before a plume of poisonous gas rose into the air from the chemical explosion, Lebanon’s waters and beaches were dangerously polluted. Sewage would pour into the sea not far from where its residents swam.

And before a port which brings in most of Lebanon’s food was decimated, along with a grain silo that could hold 120,000 tonnes, it was already facing a “major food crisis”. So-called “hunger crimes” – when people steal items such as baby milk, food and medicine – were skyrocketing.

Countries have gone to war and not experienced the level of devastation seen in Lebanon these past six months. These overlapping crises make the explosion that rocked Beirut appear less of a disaster and more like a coup de grace. A country that was on its knees has been dealt a deadly blow, and it is hard to see how it will recover.

But by whom was the blow delivered? That much was clear to some even before the dust had settled.

While the investigation into the cause of the explosion is still ongoing, the country’s interior minister Mohammed Fahmi suggested the blast was likely caused by more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that was confiscated in 2014 and had been stored in a warehouse at the port ever since.

There are only two reasons why such a quantity of highly explosive substance would be held for so long in the port. One is negligence, the other is corruption. In Lebanon, both are a part of daily life, a method by which the country’s ruling class have killed their citizens for decades.

They are the same reasons why garbage piles up in the streets sporadically in Lebanon during squabbles over the spoils of waste disposal contracts, why the country cannot provide stable electricity supply, and why thousands of young Lebanese are leaving the country every year.

A corrupt political elite that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war, made up of the warlords from that very conflict, has robbed generations of Lebanese citizens of their right to be treated as citizens and not dependents.

It was not for lack of a fight that they succeeded. Before the coronavirus and the economic collapse really came to bear in Lebanon, mass protests against its corrupt leaders spread across the country. “All of them means all of them,” the protesters chanted, in recognition that despite the bogus adversarial theatre in parliament, the country’s political parties and leaders were all the same. It was a call for an end to the sectarianism that had allowed those leaders to remain in power for so long.

The protests were the largest and most diverse in decades, but they subsided under the weight of Lebanon’s many crises. That anger is bound to return in the aftermath of this accident. Indeed, this disaster feels to some like an extension of the same corruption that has killed them for years.

Sara Assaf, a Lebanese activist, summed it up with these words in the hours after the explosion: “They killed us financially. They killed us economically. They killed us physically. They killed us morally. They killed us chemically. There’s not one form of death they haven’t used with us. Damn our political class.”

A piece published by writer Lina Mounzer on the eve of the explosion made clear the desperation felt by many Lebanese. She wrote that a myth of Lebanese resilience had betrayed the country, and that today “exhaustion is heavy in the voices and faces of everyone I encounter”.

“Perhaps resilience has always been the lie we have been fed and that we continue to tell ourselves in order to keep functioning under a state so corrupt it cannot provide a bare minimum of public or social services,” she added.

“We Lebanese thought we could survive anything. We were wrong,” the piece was titled.

That was before. How will they survive now, with so much of the country’s heart, Beirut, in ruins? How will they get electricity in their homes? How will food be imported now that the country’s largest port is destroyed? How will its medical system contain the coronavirus when they are overwhelmed with casualties from the blast? How will people get the things they need when they have no money and shops are closed?

If all of those crises were insurmountable in the moments before the explosion, what are they now?

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