Nearly a year has passed since the largest non-nuclear explosion the world has known. The explosion of the port of Beirut on August 4 of 2020 left the city in ruins, with 178 dead, 6,500 injured and more than 300,000 people homeless, according to official statistics from the World Health Organization. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy and the time that has passed since, responsibility for the event has not been assumed by any party and justice has not been served.
A country on the edge of collapse
As the first commemoration of the explosion of Beirut takes place, Lebanon is experiencing the full extent of the repercussions of its economic crisis and financial collapse. These effects are being manifested as political paralysis and a “social explosion” in the country, according to the Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, affecting all sectors, and arousing great discontent among citizens who identify these issues as consequences of the government’s failure to manage the country.
The Lebanese population is facing a severe shortage in daily supplies and basic commodities, as well as a huge rise in prices, especially food prices that increased by 400 per cent. In fact, the Lebanese currency lira has lost 90 per cent of its value, with the absence of a clear rescue plan. The World Bank’s “Lebanese Economic Monitor” of 2021 revealed that the “[Lebanese] GDP declined from about 55 billion dollars in 2018 to 33 billion dollars in 2020, and the per capita GDP decreased by almost 40%.” The World Bank also warned of the possibility that “more than half of Lebanon’s population will be below the poverty line by the end of 2021” .
The critical situation that Lebanon is facing today is not solely a product of the 2020 Beirut explosion. It could be argued that the explosion was not a major driver of the crisis but rather the result of years of political irresponsibility, corruption, and division. In fact, the vicious circle of crisis that Lebanon has been drawn into could be explained by its lack of regime accountability, its long-standing traditional sectarianism, and its significant socioeconomic disparity.
Absence of accountability
The holding of regular elections and the guarantee of transparency and accountability in governance have been identified by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen’s Democracy as a universal value as having “the power to prevent major disasters and maintain the security of a population”.
The Lebanese crisis and, particularly, the explosion of the port of Beirut can prove how the opposite practices may weaken the security of a nation. In fact, the chemical substance that caused the major explosion was stored in a warehouse following the orders of the Lebanese government, disregarding safety measures for six years since it was unloaded off of an abandoned ship.
Since 2019, Lebanese people have initiated protests and led demands for a regime change in reaction to the economic crisis in the country, the high levels of inflation and unemployment, and the lack of political freedoms After the explosion in 2020, even more Lebanese people protested in the streets, blaming the government for the explosion due to its negligence in enforcing safety and security protocols regarding the explosive substance and its storage situation. According to a Lebanese official: “the issue is all about negligence, irresponsibility, bad storage, and bad judgment.”
Sen’s thesis allows us to consider that, if the Lebanese government was democratic, transparency in the diffusion of news and accountability would have obliged the government to prioritize the security of the Lebanese people over corruption and thus, it would have acted rapidly to take the necessary safety measures to store the explosive substance away from the port. If the lack of democracy and abundance of corruption can predispose a nation for the occurrence of major disasters, the lack of democracy in Lebanon contributed in part to the major explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020 and slowly led the country into collapse.
The Lebanese system of government was formed in a way that makes private interest outweigh the interest of Lebanese people as a whole. In fact, Lebanese sectarianism and the prevalence of religion over the political sphere of decision-making certainly played a role in driving the country to its fate of crisis. These factors contributed to fragmenting the fabric of the Lebanese identity and shaped how politicians see their interest as opposed to a common national interest. In other words, the strengthened divisions over the years became embedded in the Lebanese system and ended up fragilizing its cohesion.
The Lebanese political system that “institutionalizes the representation of various religious sects” granting their leaders authority over personal status laws and education, seems to be responsible for making the political elite more likely to look at their narrow sect interest rather than the interest of the nation as a whole. Put differently, sectarian greed replaced unity, thus, the Lebanese political and decision-making structure was more likely to turn into a zero sum game with very limited chances of diverse interests overlapping. As a result, sectarianism made the terrain fertile for corruption, and paved the way for crisis whilst the search of individual interest prevailed, setting away any common Lebanese identity, ignoring the mounting crisis, instead of trying to collectively find solutions.
Besides the lack of accountability and the dominance of corruption, large socio-economic disparities play a major role in determining disastrous outcomes such as the explosion of the port of Beirut and the current crisis Lebanon is facing. In fact, the political elite is constituted of a rich Lebanese minority, far from fairly representing the Lebanese population in terms of class and access to resources. Moreover, the United Nations report, revealed on September 3, indicating that the poverty rate has doubled in Lebanon in only two years passing “from 42 per cent in 2019, to 82 per cent in 2021” demonstrates the growing socio-economic disparities, worsened by the explosion of the port and highlights the alarming situation of crisis that the country and its people, whose needs are poorly represented, are facing.
Indeed, the lack of representation of working class citizens hinders the state’s capacity to provide for its people which in turn fuels mass anger. In other words, by not being representative enough, the Lebanese government has turned its back on the rising problems faced by its people. Crucial issues ranging from poverty, to the low standards of the medical system, to schooling and the supply of basic needs have been ignored until time exacerbated them into a large-scale crisis, threatening the existence of the state, paralyzing its economy and, collapsing its security.
All in all, the Lebanese financial, economic, political and humanitarian crisis didn’t result from the explosion of the port of Beirut in August 2020 — rather, the origins of these crises have been embedded for years in the Lebanese society and its government. From a lack of accountability as well as the inexistence of transparency between the government and its population, to the dominance of sectarianism, Lebanon has become a fertile terrain for political corruption and has hindered its own capacity to guarantee the basic rights in security for its people who are hardly represented by the rich minority political elite As a result, the explosive substance was kept in the port until it exploded and the financial and economic crisis was left without any reforms leading Lebanon into a vicious circle of interrelated crises, from which it cannot escape.
Edited by Valeria Lau
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.