A shattered Beirut leaves Lebanese asking if they have a future

The explosion couldn’t have come at a worse time for Lebanon, which is enduring its deepest political and financial crisis

BEIRUT • Even before the explosion ripped through his butcher’s shop on one of Beirut’s most fashionable streets, Tony Iyami was just about staying afloat.

A lockdown to control the coronavirus pandemic had hit business, compounding a banking crisis that’s left most Lebanese unable to access their savings or borrow. The government is bankrupt, in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout and barely functioning. Then came Tuesday’s cataclysmic blast that erupted out of the capital’s port area shattering all before it, killing at least 100 people and wounding thousands.

“We were already hobbling along, surviving step by step, but now we’ve been struck down,” Iyami said in between securing his property and sweeping up debris. “If our officials don’t wake up, we’re already being destroyed, but if they don’t wake up to what’s happening now, this nation is finished.”

The explosion, fuelled by a vast consignment of ammonium nitrate stored at the port despite repeated safety warnings, couldn’t have come at a worse time for Lebanon, which is enduring its deepest political and financial crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. As fighting ebbed, former warlords became the nation’s rulers, borrowed up to the hilt and then pillaged state coffers for three decades until there was virtually nothing left. The result is often a state in name only.

Lebanese residents sitting in the trendy Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael in the aftermath of the explosion (pic: AFP)

Daily blackouts last hours, while garbage is left uncollected on the streets. A collapse in the currency has pushed inflation above 50%, erasing life savings. The blast has put the country’s leading port out of action and destroyed the main grain silos, ensuring prices will soar higher as supply chains are disrupted. Weeks of protest that began in October against cronyism and corruption, have fizzled into hopelessness as more Lebanese look to follow previous generations and emigrate.

Lebanon has appealed for international help as concerns mount over shortages in a nation that depends heavily on imports. France, Germany and others have offered medical aid and assistance with rescue operations. But decades of corruption and failure to prove that Lebanon’s political class is serious about reform means donors remain reluctant to provide the government with budget support. Any aid is likely to be humanitarian or targeted at specific sectors like health.

Unable to generate foreign significant support, oversee an economic recovery or guarantee public safety, Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s administration, cobbled together in January after mass protests brought down the previous government, may not last. Though Lebanon’s problems are an accumulation of nepotistic policies and public mismanagement over the decades, he’s facing criticism for doing too little to manage the country’s multiple crises.

“Large elements of the public no longer believes the government is able to manage,” Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Eurasia Group, said in a note. “The economic crisis will also deepen as the port is the main trade valve and base for many stored goods awaiting clearance.”

The areas behind the Port of Beirut were some of the trendiest in a politically turbulent city infamous for its nightlife. Packed with bars, restaurants and boutiques, as well as residential apartment buildings, Gemmayze, Mar Mikhail and Saifi once throbbed with a mix of fashionable revelers and longtime residents. Beyond the port itself, where the 2,750 tonnes of hazardous ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse exploded on Tuesday, these old quarters were among the worst hit.

The blame game has begun. Diab, whose government was appointed in the aftermath of protests demanding the removal of a political elite that had taken Lebanon to the brink, has promised to investigate who was responsible for leaving the deadly chemical pile in storage for six years despite the danger. Critics have demanded an international inquiry into a tragedy they say will otherwise be hushed up.

Some port officials have been placed under house arrest pending investigations, but the government has yet to say what, if anything, it will do to compensate home and business owners. That’s left some facing ruin. — Bloomberg