Australian Outlook

In this section

Fallout In A Country In Freefall: Lebanon A Year After The Beirut Blast

04 Aug 2021
By Dr Vanessa Newby
A woman in front of a destroyed house, Karantina, Beirut. Source: Dar Al Mussawir

On 4 August 2020 at 18:00, Beirut experienced two explosions emanating from its port in short succession. The second took the lives of over 200 people, injured over 6000 people, and took out infrastructure across the densely populated areas of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael.

I thought it was the Israelis, so I ran out and looked up at the sky.

I didn’t even hear the first blast, we were too close to the port; we had no time to protect ourselves from the second one.

When I realized what had happened, I was even more horrified; did we actually do this to ourselves?

In Lebanon last week, I heard many stories of how people experienced the Beirut blast. I had not visited the country since December 2018, and on my return, I found a nation devastated by the cumulative effects of a stalled revolution, the economic crisis, COVID-19, and the Beirut Blast.

Life in Lebanon currently revolves around two things: getting petrol for the car and exchanging dollars into Lebanese Lira at the black-market rate. Rumours abound about the prospect of yet more extreme fuel shortages, and in some places, it can take a three-hour wait to fill your tank.  Those with “wasta” (connections) sneak in the backdoor and fill up semi-discreetly. The rest wait in line in a surprisingly orderly and resigned manner.

During the three weeks I was in Lebanon, the black-market Lira rate rose from 17,000 to the dollar to 23,000. Lebanon is now operating on a cash economy; even “lollars” are no longer accepted in most places. Banks are more often than not closed and boarded up. Almost all have graffiti sprayed across them with slogans like “Eat the Rich” and “thawra,” the Arabic word for revolution. For the Lebanese, access to savings is extremely limited and to be avoided if possible, owing to an artificial exchange rate of 3,850 lira to every dollar.

In parts of the city pharmacies are striking or have become highly securitised for fear of violence as they face a dwindling stock of supplies and critical shortages of medicines for chronic conditions such as diabetes. A recent sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, doubtless due to the importation of the Delta variant from summer visitors, presents a bleak picture for the immunocompromised in the weeks to come.

Hyperinflation means the cost of goods and services changes hourly. Cafes only provide digital menus to enable them to amend prices quickly. Salaries paid in Lebanese Lira fail to cover basic living costs.

Across Lebanon power outages mean most people survive on less than two hours of electricity a day. In the height of the summer heat, precious food is discarded from idle refrigerators, and laundry piles up because the electricity supply does not last long enough to get through one load of washing. Generators, the usual Lebanese fallback, are also slowly shutting down due to fuel shortages. In the tourist area of Hamra, hotels that remain open run their generators 23/7.  This is evidenced by a persistent rainfall of soot from the motors that rains down from the sky. In Mar Mikhael, the building housing the headquarters of Electricité Liban remains a vacant shell, gutted by the explosion.

The stress of daily living is taking a huge toll on the population of Lebanon: they are exhausted. There is disappointment over the false promise of the October 2019 protests which the Lebanese call “the revolution” but currently most are more concerned about meeting their daily life needs or figuring out how to leave the country.

A week after my arrival, on 15 July, Saad Hariri, the acting prime minister resigned, claiming he was unable to agree on a cabinet line-up with the current president, Michel Aoun.  That night protests broke out on the Corniche with angry civilians smashing up properties.

After Hariri’s resignation, Najib Mikati, a Tripoli billionaire and former prime minister, became the fourth person to accept this unenviable post which is tasked with brokering a compromise cabinet with President Aoun. A look back in time shows that Aoun is not known for his ability to compromise. In 1990, he was forcibly driven out from the Presidential Palace after refusing to accept the Taif Accord which ended the Lebanese civil war and brokered an uneasy peace that lasted until now.

In the coming days, the simmering rage that the Lebanese people feel towards their political leaders is expected to come to a head. In July, I witnessed nightly drive-by protests by the families of the victims demanding justice and accountability for the Beirut Blast. Yesterday they issued a deadline of 30 hours for the government to strip immunity for those responsible for the blast, stating their protests will no longer be peaceful if it is not met. Until now, no political leader has been willing to guarantee this. This is yet another signal to the people of Lebanon that the political class views itself as above the law, is closing ranks, and is again putting its own survival above the needs of the country.

Unable to find the unity needed to unlock international funding, the government has been largely silent about the problems Lebanon faces. The appointment of Mikati, an old political hand deeply invested in the existing political order, has brought no new hope, and everyone I spoke to is waiting to see what solutions the international community will come up with. The Europeans, in particular the French and the Swiss, are currently leading the call to sanction Lebanese politicians in order to pressure them to unify and form a government, while also charging the head of the Lebanese Bank, Riad Salameh, with money laundering and fraud. The options for a rescue appear to be a bailout by the international community led by the EU and the US, or some form of support from the Syrian/Iranian axis possibly sponsored by Russia or China. As Lebanon languishes, the standoff continues, and the question now is who will blink first? As the crisis worsens and the spectre of alternative benefactors looms, the EU has to ask itself if it is willing to risk Lebanon drifting out of the current liberal order and into the orbit of another great power. In my view, Lebanese politicians are betting on the idea that it won’t.

On the anniversary of the blast, the French announced they will be holding yet another aid conference on Lebanon. But the questions the EU and other donors should be asking themselves now are: What has been gained by continuing to save Lebanon from itself? And what would be the cost of cutting it loose?

Dr Vanessa Newby is an Assistant Professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research interests include peacekeeping, gender and security, and the Middle East. She has articles in international peer reviewed journals and has published two books: Peacekeeping in South Lebanon: Credibility and Local Cooperation, and Follow the Arabic Road: Going Off-Track in the Middle East.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.