Maha Yahya is director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
Summary: The blasts that ripped through Beirut’s historic port could hardly have come at a worse time, as the city struggles with the coronavirus pandemic and an economic crisis. As the smoke clears, the catastrophe has laid bare festering structural weaknesses that are damaging Lebanon’s plural society.
Beirut’s identity is intertwined with its port. It was the city’s gateway to the world and the entry point to the wider Levant region. Beirut grew around its port in the early 1800s, when the city was transformed into a major trading center with Egypt. In 1888, under the Ottoman Empire, the port was expanded, and the city became the capital of its own Ottoman wilaya, or self-governing unit. The city’s crusader castle was demolished to make way for land reclamation and the elevated importance of Beirut. From its port, Beirut acquired its cosmopolitan identity as traders from far-flung corners of the world exchanged, engaged, and blended with the city’s inhabitants.
I spent a month in Beirut’s port archives in the summer of 1999. I was tracing the expansion and growth of the city and its transformation into a capital city. Those archives—which captured Beirut’s relations across the Mediterranean and beyond, the history of its trading families and property rights, and its cosmopolitan and cultural growth—are no more.
The twin explosion in the port on Monday devastated Beirut, affecting 50 percent of the city. More than 5,000 Lebanese were injured, 137 and counting lost their lives, and scores more are still missing. This comes as Lebanon faces the most existential crisis in its contemporary history as four out of the country’s five key pillars collapse. The political system is in doubt, the economic model is failing, and the massive wealth destruction that is happening as a result of the current government’s incompetence and the unwillingness of Lebanon’s politicians to place the interests of the country above their own has wiped out Lebanon’s middle class and the backbone of its innovative prosperity. And the culture of openness that once characterized the city is being forcibly restricted.
The blast itself embodies the profound dysfunction at the heart of Lebanon’s governance system. For years, close to 3,000 metric tons of explosive ammonium nitrate had been left to languish in the port. Loopholes in that story abound. With the ammonium nitrate ostensibly confiscated from a ship in 2013, the Lebanese are asking why no one has laid claim to this valuable but seemingly orphaned cargo. Successive governments overlooked reports by some port officials highlighting the dangers of having such material on site. This has left Lebanese citizens to wonder: did political groups with vested interests essentially prevent the removal of an explosive stockpile in the heart of the city? Or was it sheer, disastrous criminal negligence in a system that has become so used to cutting corners and laying responsibility at other people’s doors?
Something is certainly rotten in Lebanon. Under the guise of communal power-sharing, Lebanon’s political leadership and their business cronies collectively plundered the country and its institutions, leaving weakened governing institutions and a bankrupt state. Leaders of the sectarian communities at one time or another have aligned themselves with foreign powers, often to seek domestic advantage. In times of conflict they created armed groups—one of which, such as Hezbollah, retained their weapons in Lebanon’s postwar period after 1990. In the aftermath of the war, the political leadership divvied up the state among themselves and maintained a status quo in which they were all invested. They enriched themselves and impoverished Lebanon and the Lebanese.
And as they controlled Lebanon’s gateway to the world, the political class sought to transform a cosmopolitan society into a collection of separate religious communities—each one under the control of a particular leader or party. By playing on sectarian differences and fears, they aimed to enhance their own power over their communities, eating away at Lebanon’s pluralistic culture by sanctioning those dissenting with their rule. Beyond that, they frequently took the populist route by challenging Beirut’s open culture and restricting freedom of expression under the guise of protecting their sectarian brethren. In this context, the question of Hezbollah is central to the future of the country. To maintain its own interests and sustain Lebanon’s role as its principal backyard, it has persistently protected this system and managed to undermine Lebanon’s relations with both the broader Arab region and Western allies.
And as different theories of what caused the blast are floated, the question on everyone’s mind is whether anyone will be held accountable for the catastrophe. No one will want to claim responsibility for the devastation wrought on the city. If this was indeed a stockpile belonging to Hezbollah, it is simply impossible for them to defend the decision to place a time bomb at the heart of the city. If Israel did blow up the stockpile, the scale of the destruction renders any argument they may have for their decision also indefensible. As for Lebanon’s politicians, their criminal neglect is plain for all to see.
Irrespective of what triggered the blast, the anger of the Lebanese is clear and palpable. “Today we mourn, tomorrow we clean and the day after we hang the guillotines” is just one of the messages going round in Beirut. Meanwhile, different groups are coalescing into opposition groups and calling for widespread demonstrations. They are establishing networks that span sectarian communities, calling for an end to this political regime, and seeking to establish a civic state that recognizes them as individuals rather than as just members of a sectarian community. They are seeking not to preserve but to elevate Lebanon’s plural identities and its position at the crossroads of cultures.
Lebanon now is open to multiple futures. The international community can help steer it in the right direction. The country today needs a transitional government that is trusted by the people and tasked with steering Lebanon out of the economic and political abyss. This should be accompanied by the unlikely but necessary resignation of the president under whose watch Lebanon’s isolation from the world continues and its cosmopolitan culture is undermined.
Stabilizing Lebanon is also crucial. To do that, the international community can establish an international emergency fund that involves international organizations and local NGOs at the forefront of addressing Lebanon’s humanitarian crisis. Such a fund would provide the emergency support needed for food, medical services, and access to education. It would also provide soft loans and other forms of credit to Lebanon’s innovative citizens and their struggling businesses. This would get the economic cycle rolling again and prevent the country from becoming reliant on aid for the foreseeable future.
Without this support, Lebanon will sink. Its once thriving, cosmopolitan, and plural culture will disappear, and the destruction of the port and all it embodied will be complete.