Trapped in History: The Plight of Lebanon

The explosion that ripped through Beirut on the evening of the 4th August 2020 is estimated to have had one tenth of the power of an atomic bomb. It immediately left over 300,000 people homeless, and destroyed or damaged more than 70,000 buildings.

By the next morning, the main fire caused by the explosion was mostly extinguished, and a desperate attempt to locate the missing in the ruins of the city was well underway. Scores of people were physically trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Metaphorically, most of the country faces a similar snare, trapped under the rubble of a history of broken government and corruption. 

An aerial view of the port destroyed after the explosions in August. (Credit: Hussein Malla via AP)

The cause of an explosion of such magnitude can be traced back to a history of negligence and corruption. Some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in explosives and fertilisers, had been stored in a warehouse by the port for over six years, and a fire triggered the substance to explode. Only six months earlier, inspectors had warned that the ammonium nitrate could “blow up the whole of Beirut”. Between the ammonium nitrate being seized from a boat heading to Mozambique and the explosion, six letters were sent from the director of customs to a judge warning of the dangers of the substance and asking for instructions on how to handle it. Both Lebanon’s prime minister and president were informed of explosives at the port in July. 

Prime Minister Hassan Diab called the storage of such a substance ‘unacceptable’, and President Michel Aoun has insisted an investigation will take place whilst at the same time rejecting an international inquiry. It is clear that, whoever the blame eventually lands on, the government will not be the culprit. 

The neglect and dismissal of such concerns could be expected in a government with a history of serving its own interests over that of the population. In theory, the political system, a product of colonial rule, represents all religious groups within the government. However, in practice, it causes much divide and delays over decision making, and is well suited to political patronage and money laundering. This system traps those it claims to serve in economic hardship, and only benefits those directly connected with the government. 

Colonial rule contributed to the formation of Lebanon along the lines of various people groups, and its Civil War 1975-1990 gave military warlords a hold on government that has never truly been severed. Once combined with external influence that remains prominent in Lebanon, from Iran and Palestine to Israel and the United States, it is clear the people of Lebanon are trapped in a history that offers them next to no priority or say. 

The Lebanese government is just as aware of these trappings – and can exploit them for their own purpose. The rebirthing of the same corrupt government under a different face has been occurring for years. In February 2005, when the former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, hope for a new political government was quickly dashed. Similarly, in October 2019 when the former prime minister resigned following mass protests over a newly introduced tax on WhatsApp, there were promises within the government of change, that came to nothing. Such occurrences reaffirm that the recent resignation of the cabinet will do nothing to free the country from corruption – the same members of government will stay on in caretaker form and find new roles within a new government they can still control, whilst making promises that change is coming. 

Lebanon is now facing a great humanitarian and economic crisis, with 25% of the country in extreme poverty, and the failed state having defaulted on its loans in March. The government is aware that they can keep a hold of power, and the people are aware they are trapped. Protests are already thinning and the cycle continues.

Maddy Burt

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