Where to begin the story of post-explosion Lebanon? One thing is certain: the story does not begin on Aug. 4.
Rather, Aug. 4 was the day of reckoning, “the apocalypse,” the culmination of what came before – the day 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in the port of Beirut. The explosion flattened the port itself, then rippled across the densely-populated neighborhoods of Achrafieh, Karantina, Downtown, and beyond, registering as a magnitude 3.3 earthquake. Doors and windows were torn out of walls – not merely shattered – by the force of the explosion more than a mile away. At least 180 people were killed and 30 remain missing; about 6,000 were injured. At least 300,000 lost their homes in the explosion. Six hospitals, 20 health clinics, and 120 schools were damaged, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs office (OCHA).
Lebanon relies on Beirut’s port for 80 percent of its imports – and nearly all essential goods are imported. Even before the blast, the economic crisis and hyperinflation had led to critical shortages of imports during the past year, including medicine, fuel, and grain. The United Nations has appealed for $565 million in contributions from member nations for urgent food, shelter and health care and for reconstruction and recovery.
But as the international community conducts its donor conferences and plans its aid efforts for the short- and longer-term, the acute numbers capture only a fraction of the catastrophe. The fact that highly volatile ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years in the port through staggering incompetence or a criminal degree of negligence is but the latest, if most devastating and high-profile, example of how Lebanon has been crushed by its leaders since long before the explosion.
In a sad irony, the blast delayed the announcement of a verdict – finally – by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. After 15 years, the international tribunal convicted one low-level participant in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. If this result is any indication, accountability and justice for the negligence leading to the Aug. 4 explosion will be long-delayed, incomplete, and relatively inconsequential.
It will not be possible for Lebanon to rebuild into a fully functional state without both true accountability for this disaster and deep change to the structures that enabled it. Even saying “to rebuild” is misleading; Lebanon was not functional before the blast. The blast is not the cause of catastrophe in Lebanon, it is the result. To understand it, we must look to what came before, including the reality behind Lebanon’s much-celebrated resilience. And to avoid a similar future, the international community must join Lebanese demands for true justice.
Wheat and Wildfires
To untangle this catastrophe, perhaps we should begin one year ago, when economic freefall began. In early October 2019, bakeries went on strike. Crushed between imports purchased in dollars and customers who pay in lira, bakers protested that they could not afford to import wheat. The official exchange rate was pegged, as ever, at 1,500 lira to the dollar, but in moneychangers’ shops across the country, the price to purchase a dollar crept towards 1,600, 1,700, 1,800. Gas station owners called their own strike, protesting the ever-spiraling exchange rate and insufficient supplies.
The government patched the problem: wheat and fuel importers received a guarantee that they could exchange at the official rate. Bakeries reopened. The real exchange rate continued to climb.
In mid-October, wildfires ripped through villages across Lebanon. Volunteers battled the flames on foot while firefighting helicopters purchased and donated by citizens in 2009 sat inoperable at the airport – the funds to maintain them had been siphoned off by the vampiric political class. The fires were doused, but public rage smoldered.
Days later, confronting an impossible government balance sheet, ministers proposed a tax on the only accessible telecommunications service in the country, WhatsApp. It was a petty, regressive, and ineffectual suggestion – a final straw. Protests ignited through the country, from Saida to Tripoli and beyond. Thawra – revolution – had come.
A Crumbling Economic System and a Refugee Crisis
But we cannot tell the story of Lebanon’s October revolution without its broader economic context. Why was the lira sliding off its 20-year peg?
Lebanon’s economy has staggered for years. Growth in GDP dwindled from an average of 8 to 9 percent in the late 2000s to around 1 percent in recent years. Elites and politicians pursued the macroeconomic equivalent of a Ponzi scheme: attracting foreign capital (denominated in dollars, to support the lira’s pegged exchange rate) by promising huge interest rates – up to 14 percent on savings accounts for large depositors. Dollars circulated, thanks to the illusory interest rates as well as a thriving Lebanese diaspora that sent remittances home, a volatile but healthy tourist trade, and foreign aid.
Foreign aid – and interference – came in many forms as Lebanon played host to regional and global power struggles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the United States and Russia, Syria and Israel. But a huge portion of international aid flowed into Lebanon in exchange for border externalization – keeping refugees off European shores.
The war in Syria drove some 1.5 million refugees into Lebanon over the past nine years, on top of the 500,000 Palestinian refugees it has sheltered for decades. With an estimated total population of 6.8 million, Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.
The economic impact of this refugee influx is complex. The sudden arrival of millions of desperate – and employable – individuals disrupted the labor market, but an influx of labor is also an influx of consumers. Lebanese businesses employed and sold to Syrian refugees in equal measure. Likewise, the visible desperation of the situation – and the panicky nationalism taking hold throughout the Western world in the mid-2010s – opened floodgates of international aid from Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. In some respects, the refugee crisis thus depressed wages as the labor supply ballooned; in other respects, it spurred demand as refugees purchased necessities and international donors set up shop. The port of Beirut hummed with imports of cattle and cars and electronics (and few exports). In late 2013, an unremarkable cargo ship en route from Georgia to Mozambique made a stop in Beirut’s port. Its owners quickly lost interest in both the ship and its cargo; the latter was confiscated and stored in the port’s Hangar 12.
Meanwhile, the implosion of the Syrian economy, so long intertwined with its neighbor, reduced Lebanon’s exports by one third between 2012 and 2016 due to the simultaneous plunge in Syrian consumption and closure of trade routes to the Persian Gulf. Tourist dollars fled the regional instability, though the tourism sector had begun to recover somewhat in recent years.
And so the economy hobbled along. Dollars poured in and were siphoned off and the lira’s peg held. Until it didn’t. In 2019, GDP dropped to zero, and the revolution began.
Dividing the Spoils: Construction of the Ponzi Scheme
But to understand the roots of the economic decay that sparked popular protests, we must pull back further still. Who started this Ponzi scheme, and how?
The seeds of Lebanon’s political, financial, and physical systems were planted in the aftermath of the country’s 15-year civil war. Militia leaders surveyed the country and judged that there was nothing left to gain through arms, leading to the 1989 Ta’if Agreement. This accord was a careful division of political, material, and military power between the warring parties with the explicit aim of eliding responsibility for the war – summed up by the slogan “no victor, no vanquished.” After a spate of assassinations cemented the power of the surviving warlords, they turned their attention to dividing the spoils of war and maximizing the returns on their positions.
In the name of attracting capital to fund post-war redevelopment projects, successive governments sold bonds at steep discounts, offering ever more absurd interest rates; by 1998, debt service exceeded the yearly deficit. The vast majority of this government debt was held by Lebanese banks; 43 percent of the assets of these banks were directly controlled by politicians or their family members. The system was thus designed to efficiently siphon the resources of the state into the banks, owned in turn by those who made the policy of the state.
The most ambitious redevelopment projects were conceived by Rafik Hariri, a development tycoon who had spent the war years in Saudi Arabia amassing a construction fortune and returned to serve as prime minister from 1992-1998 and again from 2000-2004. Hariri spearheaded the plans to strip the ruined face from Beirut and build her back into a smooth, sophisticated fantasy, all plump and shining with architectural Botox and molded cartilage. In the process, he oversaw the consolidation of thousands of complex individual property claims into a single quasi-private company, Solidare, which was armed with eminent domain powers and owned, like the banks, by the upper echelons of power. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, this power allowed Solidare to expropriate or purchase (at heavily state-subsidized rates) the most valuable property in Beirut, demolish war-damaged buildings and erect sparkling apartment towers in their stead, again funneling the wealth of the state into the pockets of a few.
But after an initial flush of optimism, the crowds for which the towers had been built failed to arrive, leaving apartments and shops sitting hollow in Beirut’s flat summer sun. Until 2000, Israel occupied south Lebanon; Syria maintained its occupation of the rest of the country until 2005. Instability continually depressed tourism and thus the value of the downtown district. Meanwhile, the political winds changed.
Rafik Hariri, still a powerful political figure despite his resignation as prime minister in October 2004, was assassinated in a car bombing on Feb. 14, 2005. His murder led to an international investigation, the anti-climactic verdict of which was announced on Aug. 18. Massive popular protests followed the assassination, finally driving the visible elements of the Syrian occupation out of the country, but leaving its traces in tendrils of intertwined elite power and a culture of brutality among security forces.
Yet throughout these upheavals, the men in the seats of power remained remarkably consistent. Michel Aoun (current president), Samir Geagea (head of a major party), Nabih Berri (speaker of parliament), and Walid Jumblatt (head of a major party) had been there in 1989 to divide the pie. Others, such as Saad Hariri (son of Rafik), Hassan Nasrallah (head of Hezbollah since 1992) and Gebran Bassil (son-in-law of Aoun) later took up seats at the proverbial table too. By October 2019, these men still sat in positions of power , hands in a shrinking pie as the economy crashed and the revolution raged.
Thawra – Revolution
The revolution that began suddenly in October 2019 burned for months, even after Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his government resigned and reforms were promised. The protests demonstrated the characteristic verve, humor, and creativity of Lebanon. Borrowing techniques from Hong Kong and Santiago, protesters adopted medical and gas masks against tear gas and reclaimed public spaces long privatized or closed. Public discourse flourished. In January, a new government formed.
But by the end of 2019, the Ponzi scheme had fully imploded. Between August and December 2019, the equivalent of $14 billion in lira-denominated deposits disappeared from the country’s banks. In January 2020, the real exchange rate hovered around 2,500 lira to the dollar, a loss of more than 66 percent in a country dependent on dollar-denominated imports for all essentials. Real inflation was estimated at 30 percent. Banks placed arbitrary, nebulous, free-floating capital controls on withdraws of dollars and then lira as a slow-motion run on the banks unfolded. Savings and salaries functionally evaporated. Consumer spending and investment cratered accordingly.
Protests continued, but tinged with exhaustion, fear, hopelessness, and growing rage. The faces of the political leadership had changed –Diab replaced Saad Hariri as Prime Minister in January. But the warlords, their progeny, and cronies –Berri, Aoun, Bassil, Nasrallah and, indeed, Saad Hariri – remained, pulling the strings.
On the last day of January, medical masks began to appear on pedestrians as well as protestors. At first, the novel coronavirus spread relatively slowly in Lebanon. Two factors worked in Lebanon’s favor: Lebanon is highly networked with the West, so the Lebanese diaspora in Europe and the United States witnessed firsthand – and relayed to relatives at home – the devastation that the pandemic could wreak even on functional and well-funded health systems. And the Lebanese – even politicians – knew that the country’s health system was far from functional. So the restrictions came quickly and drastically. On March 14, the government imposed a two-week lockdown. On March 16, it declared a state of emergency, with only 119 confirmed cases. On March 18, the airport closed; it would not reopen until July.
Yet these same necessary health measures snuffed out economic activity almost entirely. At least 55 percent of Lebanese workers are informally employed; the percentage is estimated to be much higher among refugees and migrant workers. The majority of these are day laborers whose income depends on finding employment each day. There is no unemployment insurance, no safety net whatsoever. When businesses shut, those they employ don’t eat.
For businesses already teetering on the brink of collapse because of the economic crisis, even a two-week shutdown was a death sentence. Hundreds closed permanently. Many of these had not paid their employees in weeks or months. Employees kept working on the faint hope that they might be paid a fraction of what they were owed, eventually, and the knowledge that they would not find another job if they quit their position. With the lockdown, their hope was extinguished.
The lockdown initially worked to slow the spread. Cases ticked up gradually. But the economic toll continued to mount. Unemployment – estimated at 11.4 percent in 2018-2019 – climbed to an estimated 30 percent at the end of May. On July 3 alone, two citizens committed suicide explicitly out of their despair at being unable to feed their families. And so the lockdown began to ease, as much out of economic necessity as public health. The infection rate began to climb again – as of Aug. 3, the total cases of COVID-19 infection reached 5,300, nearly tripling in 30 days. The economy continued its plunge.
On July 23, Lebanon entered hyperinflation, with food prices rising 190 percent in May alone. On some days in July, a dollar would cost you at least 9,000 lira, if you could find an exchange shop that would sell you any. The World Bank projected that 75 percent of the population would be living in poverty by the end of 2020 – an estimate that predated the pandemic. Thousands of Syrian refugees crossed back into Syria in the last year, not because it is safe for them (it isn’t) but because they can no longer survive in Lebanon.
Protesters returned to the streets. Bakeries again threatened strikes: even with official support, they could not buy wheat with dollars when customers bought bread with lira. The feckless government stored grain in silos at the port, as plans to create a strategic grain reserve stalled. On Aug. 3, the foreign minister resigned. He warned, “Lebanon today is sliding towards becoming a failed state.” An Associated Press article that day carried the headline, “Often on brink, Lebanon headed toward collapse.”
Shattered City: Crippled Hospitals, Scarce Fuel, Crumbled Silos, Flattened Port
The contours of the tragedy are well-known by now. The cargo of the ship that was abandoned in 2013 – 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a potent fertilizer and more-potent explosive – had been stored unstably in the Beirut port for six years. On Aug. 4, it ignited. With at least 30 people still missing and others in critical condition, the direct death toll is still rising.
But the human cost of this catastrophe will continue to climb even after all the bodies are recovered.
Coronavirus infections already had been escalating in recent weeks and were expected to surpass ICU capacity without drastic measures. In the blast, at least four of Beirut’s hospitals were severely damaged, including the St. George hospital, which was almost completely destroyed. There, the alleyway that had been converted into a drive-through COVID-testing site was converted again, into an emergency room to treat patients who were injured inside the hospital itself by the blast. New patients were turned away. Victims of the blast crowded on sidewalks in front of hospitals throughout the city, awaiting care while traumatized residents hugged each other weeping. Many wore masks; many did not. Containers of medical supplies recently imported to shore up the pandemic response were destroyed at the port, and hospital ICU and COVID-19 treatment capacity has been decimated. The virus lurks.
With the port destroyed, already scarce fuel for transportation and power generation will dwindle. Over the summer, Lebanon’s daily electricity blackouts have stretched from their usual three hours in Beirut (much longer in other areas) up to 20 hours a day in the capital. Residents who can afford them have long used diesel-run generators to fill the gaps in Lebanon’s inadequate state electricity supply, but even these private generator mafias have rationed fuel in recent months, leaving customers in the dark. These blackouts will lengthen in the coming months, including in hospitals.
The images of corn and wheat spilling from their tall silos by the sea after the explosion are ubiquitous by now. The ammonium nitrate appears to have been stored between a fireworks warehouse (or, perhaps, a cache of Hezbollah weapons) and the grain reserves of the country’s millers. The economy minister had planned to create a strategic reserve of grain to insulate the country against food shocks, but the plans were mired in negotiations. “Luckily we did not [create the reserve],” he is reported to have said. “It would have been destroyed.”
The country has only about one month’s supply of grain left. Emergency supplies are scheduled to be delivered through Tripoli, but that port lacks grain silos, and can handle only half the traffic of Beirut’s port. A project to expand its capacity was developed and financed in 2018, but failed to secure final government approval.
Thus, the acute tragedy of those killed on Aug. 4 will give way to a subsequent tragedy as medicine, fuel, and grain dry up. In the longer term, the disaster will multiply. In compounding crises of the past year, every emergency reserve for businesses and individuals alike has been tapped and expended. The liquid economic resources of Lebanon were drained before; they are non-existent today.
The physical capital of Beirut is likewise decimated. In images of the explosion’s destruction, it can be hard at a glance to tell the difference between its ravages and the 30-year-old scars of the civil war. Many of these scars remained on the capital – despite Hariri’s redevelopment plans – as a result of incompetence, greed, corruption, property disputes, and poverty, and they had become de facto monuments to the costs of the war in the absence of a public reckoning. These cherished survivors were shredded by the blast. The odds of rebuilding or restoring them in the next 30 years seem at least as dim as in the last 30.
The most vulnerable residents of Lebanon, including impoverished Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian refugees, migrant workers, and others, faced a critical humanitarian emergency even before the blast. At least 34 refugees were killed in the explosion, and an as-yet unknown number of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and elsewhere remain missing or have been confirmed dead. Now the surviving refugees, migrants, and marginalized Lebanese face homelessness along with the rest of the Beiruti population, but with many fewer resources. The explosion has already swelled the ranks of migrant workers abandoned by their employers; abandonment invalidates a worker’s residency permit, rendering the worker both homeless and undocumented. These workers may seek to return home, but find consulates and embassies unwilling or unable to help them.
A Growing Rage
As I speak to my friends and former colleagues in Beirut, their fury is as evident as their broken hearts. Within hours of the blast, protesters attacked the convoy of former Prime Minister Hariri as he attempted a photo op to survey the damage. On Aug. 6, French President Emmanuel Macron – the head of state of Lebanon’s former colonizer – toured the neighborhoods most badly affected by the blast. Residents mobbed him, screaming with fury, but not at him – rather at their own leaders. They begged Macron not to enrich the politicians with flows of international aid. New slogans have emerged: instead of last year’s joyfully profane “Hela hela ho,” protestors now chant “Hang the nooses” and erect mock gallows from which Hariri, Aoun, Nasrallah, Berri, and others dangle in effigy.
These leaders who knew exactly what was stored in Hangar 12 have offered shrill messages of solidarity on Twitter and placed customs and port officials under arrest. Blame is passed from one to the other. When asked about Hezbollah’s knowledge of the contents of Hangar 12, Nasrallah quipped, “We know more about the port of Haifa than the port of Beirut,” despite evidence of Hezbollah’s deep involvement in Beirut port operations. Gebran Bassil – the reviled head of Lebanon’s largest parliamentary bloc and former foreign minister– opined that the question was not why nearly 3,000 tons of high explosive was left in an urban port but why it had ignited.
On the night of Aug. 6, security forces had begun firing tear gas at protesters who had gathered in front of the Parliament building and other empty, shattered symbols of the state. As the protests swelled, security forces unleashed unprecedented force, using not only teargas but also clubs and sticks, handguns and shotguns. Protesters breached and briefly occupied four ministries and the Association of Banks. On Aug. 10, Prime Minister Diab’s seven-month-old government resigned.
But Diab was never more than a figurehead. For now, Aoun, Nasrallah, Hariri, Jumblatt, Berri, Geagea, Gemayel, Bassil, and the rest of their cadre remain in their positions of power, even as they swing in effigy from the gallows in Martyr’s Square. The warlords’ expertise at retaining power will be tested in the coming months, but they have survived for decades, and the millions of dollars of international aid now flowing into the country may provide them just the lifeline they need.
“We Don’t Want to Be Resilient”
My friend Yolla Abou Elias is a fixture of Geitawi, one of many neighborhoods devastated by the explosion. She managed a small restaurant beside my old apartment near the port, in the same neighborhood as St. George Hospital. Her brother worked as a firefighter, and together their salaries supported her mother, aging uncle, and her younger sister, who could not find steady work. But in January, her employer could no longer afford to pay both wages and supplies, so he unilaterally cut wages in half, and then stopped paying them entirely. In March, the restaurant closed due to the coronavirus lockdown, eliminating any hope of recovering the lost wages. At the end of July, Yolla finally found a new job that allowed her to work remotely with a laptop, thus reducing the risk of bringing disease home to her vulnerable family.
On Aug. 4, Yolla messaged me: “Our house exploded … we [are] well my mom is bleeding but the hospital blew up.” The home the five of them shared and nearly all their possessions – including the laptop that linked Yolla to her job – were destroyed.
Yet Yolla has been lucky. After she was interviewed on a news program about the devastation, a friend in the United States organized a fundraiser for her family. Donations poured in. The family found a new house in a neighborhood further from the blast area and secured money for the first several months’ rent. Someone donated a new laptop. Her old employer even paid some of the wages he owed her.
The donations continued to accumulate and Yolla has reprised her role as a central figure in her community, distributing the donated funds and acting as a de facto hub for families in need.
But this is not a heartwarming story. Each donation, whether from abroad or from within Lebanon, comes with an implicit message: `We trust you, Yolla, to distribute these funds where they are needed. We would rather trust this stranger than the government.’ And while Yolla’s enormous social network has helped her to recover, it was also cracked by the blast. She will have to move out of Achrafieh, the neighborhood where she was born, survived the civil war, and has lived ever since. Her brother is now seeking to emigrate as soon as possible, joining thousands of other Lebanese who have left since the explosion. The rending of this social fabric is as significant as the shattered physical infrastructure of the city.
In the weeks to come, Lebanon will produce more images and stories of unfathomable generosity, bravery, resilience, for Lebanon is resilient, generous, and brave. Observers will describe Beirut as a phoenix, destined to rise again. But for Lebanese, the shallowness of these descriptions is more evident than ever. Interviewed after the explosion, a victim stated, “If I hear one more person referring to us as ‘resilient’, I will lose it. F**k resilience. We don’t want to be resilient. We just want to live!” Sara Mourad, a writer and professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, explained,
Resilience romanticizes our loss and dispossession. It brands our survival, making it an object of fascination for foreigners and inspiration for locals, advertising it as a valorized mode of attachment. Resilience is a marketing stunt for a political and economic system that runs on crises, that manufactures crises in order to sustain itself. Resilience celebrates survival at the expense of justice. It is the rhetorical and symbolic symptom of the normalization of injustice.
Across Lebanon, the glaring absence and criminal ineptitude of political leaders has been answered by informal arrangements like those that now sustain Yolla. Acute humanitarian needs can, to some extent, be mitigated through private and informal generosity. Crucially, these arrangements are specifically designed to route money away from the irredeemable – and endlessly resilient – kleptocracy.
The subversion of traditional aid streams (with their diversions into political pockets) and the rejection of resilience narratives has the kleptocracy worried. The crackdowns against protesters have come quickly and with a brutality unparalleled in the past nine months of unrest. A state of emergency was swiftly approved by parliament, granting the army sweeping powers to “impose curfews, ban assemblies and impose censorship…”, and to expand the use of military tribunals to try civilians – familiar tactics of abuse in Lebanon.
This response should clarify for all international observers: Lebanon’s leaders have no intention of implementing the reforms that would lead to either accountability for the tragedy or the creation of a functioning state. Either move would be political and financial suicide.
What Lebanon needs from the international community is not only food, medicine, fuel, and dollars. The Lebanese people instead need an unflinching and sustained focus on the tactics that their leaders will use to silence them. These tactics will escalate, and be justified as necessary to maintain order, to enable Lebanon to “rebuild,” to “rise again,” to be resilient. The international community must not accept this excuse. Resilience has cost Lebanon too much already.
Image: Graffiti on Charles Helou highway, in front of the ruins of the Beirut port. Photo by Mona Mehdi.