On August 4, 2020, a fire broke out in Beirut’s main port. Shortly after, around 6:00 pm local time, a colossal explosion shook the city, leveling buildings. After some initial confusion, as the country is no stranger to explosions from air strikes and car bombs, it was determined that the explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in the port for years.
Documents revealed that some of Lebanon’s top leadership and officials were aware of the storage of this highly explosive chemical, which is used for making fertilizer and bombs. Lebanese citizens, who have been protesting the government for almost a year, blame the government’s negligence for the explosion that killed over 220, injured 6,000, and left around 250,000 homeless.
Lebanon’s political system is deeply flawed and has a history of dysfunctionality. As a result, the country faces frequent gridlock, corruption, conflict, and worsening economic inequality. The nature of the current system, which encourages sectarianism and corruption, makes it so the leaders have little will or incentive to change the status quo. In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of Lebanon’s flawed political system that set the stage for the recent catastrophic explosion.
A bit of history
Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, from 1516 until 1918, at the end of World War I. It was then ruled under French mandate from 1920 to 1943. When Lebanon gained independence in 1943, leaders created the National Pact, which is essentially an unwritten agreement that divided political power between the main religious groups – Christians and Muslims. Based on the 1932 census, they divided seats in Parliament on a six-to-five ratio, and then divided them further among 18 officially recognized religious sects. Under this agreement, they also elected a Maronite (Christian) president, a Sunni prime minister, and a Shia speaker of parliament.
This style of intentionally dividing political rule between different ethnic and religious groups is called consociationalism, and has been a defining and divisive feature of Lebanon’s politics ever since the country’s modern foundation, despite multiple motions throughout history to change it.
In 1975, Lebanon broke out into a bloody civil war as a result of escalating religious and political divide that lasted until 1990. In 1989, the Taif Agreement was signed, which intended to end the civil war and return the country to political normalcy. While the agreement brought an end to the bloodshed, it essentially further perpetuated the country’s sectarian divide.
The religious sectarianism entrenched in Lebanon’s political system has caused many problems throughout the years. Much of the country’s political elite are remnants of the civil war, who pass on their seats in parliament to their children and divy out resources and power to their cronies. Vote-buying and embezzlement have also become major problems.
The country’s various sects are often deeply divided and are incapable of working together to solve some of the country’s major problems, including the economy, foreign affairs, and of course, political reform. As a result, there has been stagnant gridlock with sporadic acts of violence. This has also caused lack of accountability, because instead of owning up and actively trying to fix problems, politicians are quick to blame other groups.
Needless to say, Lebanon’s consociational political structure is causing many of the country’s persistent problems – things just aren’t running properly. For instance, according to their constitution, direct parliamentary elections must be held every 4 years, but after the 2009 election, another one wasn’t held until 2018.
An economic meltdown
For decades, Lebanon has prided itself as being one of the Middle East’s most sophisticated societies. Recently, however, the country has plunged into an economic crisis, which was unsurprisingly linked to government corruption and mismanagement. Inflation and unemployment rates soared, and in 2018, the unemployment rate reached a staggering 46%. The price of basic goods has skyrocketed, and many are facing hunger. Currently, Lebanon has $92 billion in public debt, which is over 160% of their gross domestic product.
Due to sectarian gridlock and lack of accountability, the government has been incapable of providing basic public services. Power cuts are a daily occurrence, and hospitals have been forced to close because of a lack of power. Consistent waste management services are also highly mismanaged, causing heaps of trash building up on the once-pristine beaches. The entrenched religious power-sharing agreements allows different groups to distribute these public projects to their favoured contractors, who often fail to get the job done.
Protests erupted last October, as demonstrators demanded for the ouster of the political elite and economic reform. Shortly after, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29, which the protestors deemed as a win. He was replaced by Hezbollah-backed Hassan Diab last January, who pledged to tackle the country’s corruption problem. Demonstrations lasted months, carrying into the spring of 2020, although they temporarily tapered down due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Responses to the port explosion
Now that we’ve taken a look at the history of Lebanon’s government inefficiency, we have a better understanding of the context in which the recent explosion occurred and claimed the lives of hundreds. If the government and public sector had been managed and functioning properly, this tragedy would have likely been prevented. Lebanese officials had known about the dangerous supply of ammonium nitrate for six years, but nobody had the will to do anything about it.
The damage resulting from the explosion could cost around US$15 billion, which could be debilitating for Lebanon, which is the world’s third most indebted country. Each of the country’s leaders have refused to take accountability for the explosion. Instead, they have resorted to blaming other politicians and factions. It’s easy to point a finger at others, and the entrenched factional nature of Lebanon’s political system makes it even easier. Lebanese President Michel Aoun was quick to declare no responsibility, “I have no authority to deal directly with the port,” he said, and later suggested the explosion was caused by “foreign interference.”
Protests erupted again after the explosion, calling for the resignation of government officials. The protests turned violent, as security forces and demonstrators clashed, and hundreds were wounded. Prime Minister Diab announced his resignation on August 10, although his cabinet will continue to fulfill a caretaker position, until a new government is formed. In his resignation announcement, he blamed the blast on political corruption, and blamed entrenched political elites for his lack of reforms. “I discovered that the system of corruption is bigger than the state,” he said.
It could be months before another government is installed. While the devastating blast is hoped to serve as a turning point for the country and to catalyze deep reforms, it’s unlikely. A reform of the flawed political system that has persisted for decades would require will and accountability – two things that most Lebanese politicians are deeply lacking. In the meantime, the Lebanese citizens will continue to pick up the rubble, grieve the losses of their loved ones, and protest for reform.
DW YouTube documentary on the 2019 protests in Beirut. Watch here.
The Brookings Institute’s podcast on the causes of the fall 2019 protests in Lebanon. Listen here.
Tearfund is collecting donations to provide emergency food to families devastated by the explosion. Donate here.