In a turning point in the history of the middle east, the Lebanese government has resigned. While some may assume this as the outcome of the devastating explosion that occurred on 4th August in Beirut, the tension has been brewing for some time. A host of issues, ranging from a decision to tax WhatsApp calls, a failed economy, unprecedented wildfires, sectarianism and more have been prevalent in the country. The tension that has been bottled up for some time has now surfaced in the form of mass protests by the Lebanese citizens and rising public anger. Beirut is now facing the side-effects of a failed governance.
The blast that killed 70 in Beirut
In 2013, a shipment of 2,750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate was detained in Beirut. The Russian-owned ship, named the MV Rhosus, was destined for Mozambique but was stopped in Beirut as the ship’s cargo license was revoked. This created unrest within the ship's Russian and Ukrainian crew.
7 years later, the ammonium nitrate stored in the ship acted as the spark that set off the Beirut blast. The two most common uses of the chemical are, as an agricultural fertiliser and as an explosive. It is highly explosive when it comes into contact with fire - and when it explodes, ammonium nitrate can release toxic gases including nitrogen oxides and ammonia gas. Because it's so flammable there are strict rules on how to store ammonium nitrate safely. Evidently, caution was thrown to the winds while storing this dangerous chemical for years at the Beirut port. That too, 2,750 metric tonnes of it!
The Director of Lebanese Customs, Badri Daher, told CNN that officials had written to legal authorities six times calling for that cargo be removed from the port, but the requests went unheeded. What started off as an unheard request, went on to create a large explosion which killed 70 and injured more than 4000 others.
Beirut explosion destroys the city
In videos that emerged post the Beirut blast, a mushroom cloud could be seen, followed by the massive explosion that shook the city. Local media showed people trapped beneath the rubble and witnesses described the explosion as deafening. Wrecked cars, damaged buildings, glass debris carpeting the roads, people losing their hearing, smoke billowing and covering the city in black, blood spilt everywhere, cars smashed with rocks. This paints the image of a city that was devastated with the impact of the explosion.
Survivors recounting the horror of the blast said “My car jumped, I saw people flying. Stores, apartments, houses, were falling down. People were screaming, running. It was like a war zone. There were body bags on the street, in the aftermath of the blast. There were so many people who were injured and walking around looking completely lost. Even the ambulances couldn't really drive through the streets, because it was such pandemonium."
How countries reacted to the Beirut explosion
Following the explosion, Lebanon's Prime Minister also called for international help: "I make an urgent appeal to friendly and brotherly countries... to stand by Lebanon and to help us heal our deep wounds," Hassan Diab said. Other countries expressed their shock and empathy. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted: "The pictures and videos from Beirut blast tonight are shocking. All of my thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in this terrible incident. "The UK is ready to provide support in any way we can, including to those British nationals affected."
US President Donald Trump sent his deepest sympathies after what he called "a terrible attack", and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered assistance, tweeting: "We are monitoring and stand ready to assist the people of Lebanon as they recover from this horrible tragedy."
France said it was sending aid and resources to Lebanon. Iran would "render assistance in any way necessary" Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, while Saudi Arabia expressed its full solidarity with Lebanon.
Even Israel - which has shared conflicting relations with Lebanon, ever since the Shia Hezbollah movement, said in a statement that it had "approached Lebanon through international security and diplomatic channels and has offered the Lebanese government medical and humanitarian assistance". The German foreign ministry said the Beirut explosion had been felt at its embassy in the city. "We cannot for the moment exclude German nationals figuring among the dead and wounded," it said in a statement.
The massive explosion was just the tip of the ice-berg to a whole plethora of issues that lain beneath the surface for years.
Taxing WhatsApp calls, wildfires: precursors to the protests
In 2019, a $6 (£4.50) monthly charge on WhatsApp calls was imposed in the middle east country. This led to massive public outrage that evolved into protests. People began protesting outside the then Government’s headquarters in central Beirut. A surge of discontent was unleashed against the authorities and this backlash forced the then-government to resign.
As if this wasn’t enough to create political discord, on 14 October, unprecedented wildfires swept through Lebanon’s western mountains, and Cyprus, Greece and Jordan were called upon for help. This after it was revealed that Lebanon's own fire-fighting aircraft was not in a fit state to deal with the blaze due to a lack of funds. Following this, the citizens of Lebanon were very unimpressed with their Government.
Lebanon deals with a declining economy
While there were a multitude of issues that kept putting Lebanon in the bad books of its citizens, a declining economy was just something that couldn’t be tolerated. Unemployment stood at 25%, a third of the population was below the poverty line, the debt-GDP ratio ( a comparison of how much a country owes to the government and how much it produces) was the third-highest in the world. A very distressing figure!
At the start of October 2019, the value of the Lebanese pound dropped. Lebanon started borrowing from commercial banks at above-market interest rates in order to pay back its debts, and maintain the value of the Lebanese pound. While the country's economy was going downhill, people's frustration about the government's failure to provide basic services was increasing. They were having to deal with daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water, limited public healthcare, and some of the world's worst internet connections.
The Coronavirus made matters worse
Amidst the economic turmoil, and the massive explosion, the Coronavirus pandemic added fuel to the fire. Lebanon imposed a lockdown on 15th March, as a response to a surge in Covid19 cases. While this lockdown forced the anti-government protestors off the streets, it worsened the economic crisis.
Businesses were forced to shut down or lay-off staff, banks tightened their capital control, prices hit the roof, and families were unable to buy basic necessities. By the time the Coronavirus restrictions began to be lifted in May, the prices of some foodstuffs had doubled and Mr Diab warned that Lebanon was at risk of a "major food crisis". "Many Lebanese have already stopped buying meat, fruits and vegetables, and may soon find it difficult to afford even bread," he wrote in the Washington Post.
The government in Lebanon resigns
Announcing the move on Monday, outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab - who came to office with the backing of the powerful militant group Hezbollah, said his government was taking "a step back... to stand with the people, in order to wage the battle of change with them". In his strongly-worded speech on Monday, Mr Diab blamed "a system of corruption... deeply-rooted in all the functions of the state".
"One of the many examples of corruption exploded in the port of Beirut, and the calamity befell Lebanon," he said. "But corruption cases are widespread in the country's political and administrative landscape; other calamities hiding in many minds and warehouses, and which pose a great threat, are protected by the class that controls the fate of the country."
Why is Lebanon struggling to do anything about it?
Most analysts point to one key factor: political sectarianism, for why the country finds it so difficult to get things under control. The phenomenon of political sectarianism happens when a group that is under economic or political pressure will kill or attack members of another group which it regards as responsible for its own decline. In Lebanon, there are 18 officially recognized religious communities - four Muslim, 12 Christian, the Druze sect and Judaism.
Lebanon has 3 main officers to manage the administration of the country. But what happens when these 3 main pillars of the government are divided among the 3 different religious communities? There is a massive religious and political divide that ensues. Due to this religious diversity within the country, external powers can often influence home matters.
Religious diversity in Lebanon
The Shia Hezbollah movement is the most powerful and political group in Lebanon and with Iran, an external influence backing it, religious diversity is disturbed. The Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim political party which was founded in the chaos of the fifteen-year Lebanese civil war. Since the end of the civil war, political leaders from each sect have maintained their power and influence through a system of patronage networks. It says it is the very system of sectarian power-sharing which is fuelling these patronage networks and hindering Lebanon's system of governance.
Cut to date, when Lebanon has is being rocked by anti-government protests, which are the largest that the country has seen in more than a decade, after the Civil war. Protestors are united in their anger over the government's failure and have decided they have had enough.
Before Mr Diab's announcement to resign, three of his 20 cabinet ministers had already resigned, as had at least seven members of the country's 128-member Parliament. But those moves were not enough to either topple the government or prompt new elections. However, now that the entire Government itself has resigned, the people of Lebanon are in-charge.
The road ahead for Lebanon
Mr Diab will continue in a caretaker capacity as the political parties choose a new prime minister. But caretaker prime ministers usually lack the political backing to pursue significant initiatives, meaning that the Lebanese government could coast, or become even less responsive until a new cabinet is in place. That could take many months.
While this political crisis is evolving, the people of the country are working arm-in-arm to salvage the ruins brought about by the Beirut blast.
A Lebanese citizen said that today, the political class has lost its credibility, even amongst its supporters. “The anger needs to be channelled beyond its expression in protests and street mobilizations. And now with the resignation of the government, there is a political opportunity to be grasped.
The opposition needs to rise to this moment politically and lead the transition that will not only topple the rulers, but that will also prosecute them. Without a leadership that can translate the anger in the streets into a political process, this will be, yet again, another lost opportunity. The international community also has a role to play in our recovery, and it can start by no longer recognizing corrupt and heartless leaders. It can isolate them by refusing to meet with them and refusing to channel any aid to Lebanon through them. Until there is a new, trustworthy government in place, this is imperative. Every penny that goes through the Lebanese system, will help entrench them and will make our struggle against them more difficult."
“Chance for a major political transformation”
The people of Lebanon have had enough of the corrupt practices prevalent in the nation. "Lebanese politicians and their parties should be prosecuted and banned from participating in political life. Only when our leaders have been removed from office and held responsible for their years of malfeasance can we begin to restore justice and rebuild our democracy and the many institutions that are required to ensure its survival.
A so-called "national unity" government that would bring them back to power with international support will be another blow to the Lebanese people and their right for a decent life. While the future remains uncertain, a catastrophe of the magnitude of the Beirut explosion should not pass without a major political transformation in the country. This is not only for the people of Lebanon but for the belief that the word "justice" can still have meaning on our planet."