Op-Ed: Beirut explosion in 2020 showed dysfunctional war legacy

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In the early evening of August 4, 2020, a powerful explosion ravaged the port of Beirut, sending a shock wave through the seaside town. In seconds, entire blocks were pulverized, as if they had been visited by a cataclysmic earthquake, leaving in its wake mounds of rubble and shattered glass, twisted sheets of corrugated iron and spaghetti of bars of iron. iron.

The disaster left more than 200 dead, 6,000 injured, 300,000 homeless and caused billions of dollars in damage. It appears to have been caused by an accident that ignited a stockpile of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been seized from a ship and stored in a port warehouse for six years. Senior security and customs officials, powerful judges and several ministers have traded blame for years on what to do with the dangerous chemicals, but no one has secured or removed the cargo.

The explosion was the first mass event in Lebanon that was not directly caused by war or civil unrest. But in fact, it is deeply linked to Lebanon’s dysfunctional political structure and its corrupt former warlords who took control of the state at the end of a 15-year civil war in 1990.

A year after the explosion, the investigation has stalled and no senior official has been prosecuted. Lebanon is facing a more serious economic and political crisis: most of the country’s 6 million inhabitants are struggling to obtain food, medicine, fuel, electricity and other basic necessities in due to economic collapse and currency devaluation.

Lebanon is undergoing a financial collapse which the World Bank has described as “likely to rank in the top 10, perhaps the top 3, the most severe crises in the world since the mid-19th century.” Meanwhile, the country’s political and sectarian leaders are vying for control over various ministries and have been unable to form a government since Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned nearly a year ago, a week after. the disaster of the port.

On July 15, Saad Hariri, the country’s most prominent former prime minister and Sunni Muslim leader, gave up trying to form a new government after nine months of negotiations. This means that there is no foreign bailout on the horizon; the International Monetary Fund and Western governments have said Lebanon cannot receive billions of dollars in aid until its leaders agree on a new government that will carry out economic reforms.

Although the United States, France and other Western powers have united around Hariri in recent months, he was unlikely to be the savior of Lebanon. On July 26, Lebanese President Michel Aoun chose a new prime minister designate: another billionaire businessman and ex-prime minister, Najib Mikati, who is currently negotiating with the country’s sectarian leaders.

Mikati is the third candidate for prime minister in less than a year. And while some Lebanese are hoping that a new government could stabilize the economy, it is proposing more status quo.

Both Hariri and Mikati are part of the same political class and sectarian leadership that caused the current catastrophe in Lebanon, and who refuse to relinquish power or undertake reforms. A Mikati government, like the one led by Hariri, would do what the Lebanese politicians do best: buy time for the current system by negotiating a foreign bailout and additional loans, even though Lebanon already has over $ 97 billion. debt – and a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 180%, one of the highest in the world.

Lebanon’s economic collapse began in the fall of 2019, when the Lebanese pound, which had been pegged at around 1,500 to the dollar since 1997, began to lose value. Lebanese banks, which have helped finance the country’s debt for decades and have made huge profits for their shareholders, ran out of dollars to pay their depositors. After Hariri’s recent resignation, the pound hit 23,000 to the dollar on the black market. The collapse of the currency, along with the shortage of dollars, led to soaring food prices and shortages of medicine, gasoline and other imported goods.

At best, Mikati could stabilize the country until the parliamentary elections next year.

But Lebanon needs more transformative changes, starting with a technocratic government that is not aligned with current political and sectarian parties and that can oversee fair elections.

Unfortunately, Lebanon’s sectarian leaders have been remarkably resilient and adept at exploiting their advantage over civil society and non-sectarian groups because the political system is built on the allocation of patronage and resources. Sectarian parties not only distribute jobs to their supporters, but also food, health care, access to school and other aids. With the current economic collapse, parties are filling the void left by a corrupt government that fails to provide most basic services.

When the civil war in Lebanon ended in 1990, sectarian leaders and former warlords took control of most ministries and public institutions, expanding their networks of patronage. According to a process known in Arabic as muhasasa, or the sharing of the spoils, most jobs, contracts and other government resources are distributed among 18 officially recognized sects – and carefully balanced between the leaders of the three largest sects: Sunni, Shiite and Christian Maronite. The Port of Beirut, which handled an estimated $ 15 billion a year in revenue before the explosion, is among state institutions where sectarian leaders vie for control and create patterns of favoritism and corruption.

As the Lebanese people face more serious economic hardships and prepare to mark the first anniversary of the devastating port explosion, business continues as usual for the country’s sectarian leaders. They keep their grip on power and fight for their share of the next loot.

Mohamad Bazzi is professor of journalism and the new director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.

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