Devastating blast in Beirut likely to exacerbate existing crises in Lebanon

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While Lebanese officials dig through the rubble in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, the country is currently fighting a pandemic, political unrest, and an unprecedented economic crisis. 

Just five days after the explosion that left Lebanon’s capital of Beirut in shambles, Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government stepped down amidst civilians’ calls for an end to leadership’s endemic corruption and incompetence. President Michel Anoun accepted the resignation on Monday, but asked the government to remain in their positions until a new cabinet is found. 

“The corrupt system is bigger than the State,” he said in a televised speech. “One of the many examples of corruption exploded in the port of Beirut, and the calamity befell Lebanon.” He went on to say that he was taking “step back” in order to “wage the battle of change” with the people of Lebanon. 

The government’s resignation followed a weekend of civil unrest across the country. Lebanese people expressed anger at the government’s carelessness that led to one of the worst explosions in its history. What started off as peaceful demonstrations, turned violent after a crackdown by security forces wounded over 728 demonstrators and killed one officer, Al-Jazeera reported

Food insecurity

Last week’s explosion caused by 2700 tons of ammonium nitrate was part of a chain of major issues in the country. Originating from Lebanon’s most vital port, the massive damage to the infrastructure caused by the detonation now threatens to deepen the country’s current economic crisis. 

Lebanon’s director of the general security directorate linked the catastrophe to chemicals stored at the industrial port’s warehouse for six years after they were seized from a vessel sailing from Georgia to Mozambique in 2013. To date, no persons or groups have been linked to the cache of ammonium nitrate.

While the focus right now is on loss of life and injuries, there are growing concerns that the port’s destruction will eliminate food security. The United Nations World Food Programme has said that the destruction of Beirut’s port would push food prices “beyond the reach of many” and that the price of a food basket “has more than doubled over the last six months.” 

. . . .

Serving as Lebanon’s main entry point, the port is the busiest in the Eastern Mediterannean. Before the explosion, the commercial harbor handled 60 percent of the nation’s total imports. However, the explosion damaged the port’s grain silos and a nearby grain terminal, which stores over 85 percent of Lebanon’s cereals, according to MENA Commodities.

We fear there will be a huge supply chain problem, unless there is an international consensus to save us,” Hani Bohsali, head of the importers’ syndicate, told Reuters. He cited the economy minister’s revelation that the grain reserves in Lebanon’s remaining silos stood at “a bit less than a month”. 

Because of its current financial crisis, Lebanon has to depend on wheat imports. Moreover, domestic production in Lebanon covers only 10 percent of the country’s total consumption. Consequently, many people expressed rage with and blamed the port’s destruction on Lebanese authorities who allowed the dangerous substance to be stored in those facilities for over six years. The ex-captain of the cargo ship that Lebanese officials seized in 2013 told the Associated Press that Lebanese officials were “very well” aware of the danger of storing the cargo in the port’s facilities. He said, “It’s the government of Lebanon that brought about this situation.” 

“Not a single public administration took to the streets to help these people,” activist Noir El Achi, who works with local activist group Minteshreen, told Business Insider. “Not a single public establishment actually tries to clean the roads to clean up this tragedy, this catastrophe.” Volunteers have been urging that aid be sent directly to volunteer organizations and NGOs who they believe will truly serve the people. 

A member of Beirut’s Fire Brigade told Australian news that if the firefighters who were dispatched to the scene had any idea what was stored in the port, they would have evacuated the city. 

“They were dispatched to a fire that seemed very normal, but they weren’t given any information telling them that there were 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate,” he explained. “[The government] stole our bread, they stole our money and now they have stolen our family members.”

Likewise, a Beirut resident told Al-Jazeera that the people will not rest until those in power responsible for the disaster are punished accordingly. “Who does this to their own people?” she exclaimed. “They don’t even come and ask about us. They treat us like cockroaches as if we don’t exist.” She described the catastrophe as worse than the 1982 Lebanon War.

Quid pro quo in a system of balanced representation

Prior to the blast, Lebanese citizens also accused the government for the economy’s collapse. In October 2019, planned taxes on Whatsapp triggered widespread protests across the country. In the rallies, dissenting voices demanded an end to financial mishandling and corruption within the government. Lebanese citizens expressed anger and frustration with the country’s sectarian rule and its failure to address and rectify a poor economy with high unemployment rates. In addition, citizens lack adequate access to electricity — stoked by shortages in fuel — and water. 

As a direct end result of Lebanon’s civil war, Lebanon’s government system was built based on different sects sharing power in order to keep the peace. That means, when it comes to the economy, public institutions aim for sectarian balance in their recruitment; a certain number of Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze, and Armenians are hired to fulfill a quota. 

Civilians have largely charged this system prioritized balancing representation over skill. As a result, it has been cause for corruption and government mismanagement that maintains current systems of patronage and nepotism. Basic services like education and healthcare are handed out by favors based on sectarian politics. In other words, if an individual gets a position, they must maintain loyalty to the respective sectarian political party. 

“The big struggle today in the country is between two groups: one group consists of all the sectarian political parties that are vying for power among themselves,” Bassel Salloukh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University, said in an interview. “But all of them have one thing in common and that is their preoccupation with saving the current political system as it is, or with a minimum of reform.” 

Consequently, this has sent the economy into freefall which led to recent protesters demanding that Lebanon move past this system. In addition, demonstrators claim that the political elite have stolen billions of dollars and have plunged the nation into 80 billion dollars of debt. 

In addressing the blast at the port, Salloukh said, “ “Many Lebanese want a major change in the political system because what the explosion symbolized for them was the ultimate failure of a corrupt system.” He also argued that Lebanon has more pressing issues to worry about aside from sectarian politics. “They [anti-sectarian advocates] say that this political system…has indeed come to an end and has not achieved any kind of peace in the country.” 

One Beirut taxi-driver told New York Magazine last year that politicians exploited sectarian politics to keep the country divided and maintain their power. “I drove a lot of politicians around, back when the economy was better,” he said. “I’d watch them fight with each other on TV, then drop them off at nice restaurants and see them drink and laugh together.” 

Because of the widespread unrest, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned last year though other politicians deemed as corrupt by the public still remain in power. Moreover, since September 2019, prices for basic necessities have soared by 169 percent. Additionally, unemployment has risen by 35 percent in the formal sector and 45 percent in the informal sector. Also, the Lebanese lira has lost over 80 percent of its value over the last year, making it the third highest inflation rate in the world. 

Refugees in crisis

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated Lebanon’s economic collapse. Just last week, Save the Children estimated that about 500,000 children in Beirut alone risk going into hunger as Lebanese families continue to lose income and sink into poverty because they cannot afford basic essentials like food, electricity, and water. Back in March, not long after the virus bought Lebanon’s economy to a screeching halt, food prices soared. In July, bread prices increased by over 33 percent. 

Now, over 75 percent of the population deals with food shortages and poverty, up from the 45 percent the World Bank predicted prior to the pandemic. Also, more widespread famine increases the likelihood of a second coronavirus wave, as it becomes difficult for families to purchase Personal Protective Equipment to protect themselves from the spread of the virus.  

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope. The head of the workers’ union at the port, Bechara Asmar told Al-Jadeed TV that despite the silos’ destruction, two ships docked at Beirut’s port on Monday, including one carrying grain. Alternatively to the silos, the material will be “pumped directly to trucks after being sanitized.” 

However, the blast buckled Beirut’s already strained hospital system. Prior to the explosion, hospitals were already at capacity with coronavirus cases. Now, with hundreds of patients seeking care for injuries from the disaster and most hospitals destroyed by the blast, doctors have had to turn away patients

To further complicate matters, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Lebanon in its latest attempt to take a hardline stance against Iranian government-backed Hezbollah. The sanctions were placed on various companies that control several sectors of Lebanon’s economy. One such company, Atlas Holding, owns pharmaceutical companies that are critical in providing necessary material to beat the coronavirus. 

As a result, the World Health Organization Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the organization will send 1.7 million dollars worth of Personal Protective Equipment to Lebanon to support hospitals. “We’re also mitigating the COVID-19 impact, addressing psychosocial needs, and facilitating the rapid restoration of damaged health facilities,” he said. The WHO issued an appeal for 76 million dollars to facilitate its response. 

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Added to the strains of the country, Lebanon hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees, the highest per capita in the world. Prior to the pandemic, refugees lived in poverty with little to no access to employment. Now, 75 percent of refugees in Lebanon are currently out of work. 

Additionally, early on in the pandemic, Lebanese authorities in several municipalities imposed discriminatory COVID-19 restrictions on refugees, according to Human Rights Watch. If they violated the restrictions, they risk confiscation of their identity documents. Equally important, most refugees do not have adequate access to healthcare. Given the high density of refugee camps, it would be almost impossible for people to social distance and quarantine from one another. 

Included in highly stressed populations are migrant workers who have been disproportionately affected by the economic and coronavirus crises. During the Covid-19 crisis, employers fired and abandoned over 100 Ethiopian migrant workers outside the consulate in Beirut because the Lebanese families employing them could no longer pay them. 

Lebanon hosts over 250,000 migrant workers mainly from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. These workers already face rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse from employers under Lebanon’s kefala system. Now, it is likely that Lebanon’s most vulnerable populations will continue to suffer under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic and economic collapse exacerbated by the destruction of an essential port.

Sara Elroubi is based out of Queens and covers current affairs and social justice issues.

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