One year on from the blast that blew Beirut apart, Lebanon remains mired in economic collapse and corruption-driven politics, writes Susan Ram
As Shabbir Lakha’s recent on-the-spot Counterfire report from Beirut reminds us, Lebanon has just been marking the grisliest of anniversaries: that of the colossal explosion that ripped its capital city apart on August 4, 2020. The detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, illegally stashed away in a sea-front hangar since 2013, resulted in more than 200 deaths, thousands of injuries and the destruction of countless homes and businesses.
In the wake of the catastrophe, many grand promises were forthcoming from around the globe. World leaders, chief among them French President Emmanuel Macron, rushed to the devastated city to pledge assistance and deliver florid speeches. A global aid-pledging conference, organised online in conjunction with the UN, saw 15 government leaders (Trump among them) promise Lebanon 250 million euros in emergency aid, to be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency”, according to the accompanying joint statement.
Lebanon, it appeared, was set to become a mega reconstruction project for global capitalism. As for its political class – corrupt and inept in equal measure – it was put on notice to clean up its act and knuckle down. In the manner of a planetary headmaster, Macron rapped out demands for fresh elections and the formation of a united national government – a “draft programme” for which was speedily circulated by French embassy officials.
One year on, such grandiose talk must stick in the gullet of Lebanon’s inhabitants, caught up in what must rank as one of the world’s deepest and most intractable economic and political crises.
The country’s financial crisis, simmering away for years but finally erupting in 2019, has deepened over the past year, wiping out jobs and savings, slashing away at purchasing power and driving yet more people into extreme poverty.
The national currency – the Lebanese lira – has this year crashed past new milestones on its downward trajectory: after hitting a record low of LL 10,900 against the US$ on 12 March 12 2021, it plummeted further, reaching LL 20,500 to the US$ by August. The lira has now lost 90 per cent of what it was worth in late 2019, resulting in hyperinflation of eye-watering proportions.
The currency collapse continues to bite deep into a country heavily dependent on imports. Food and medicines are scarce and fuel supplies have dwindled to a dribble, paralysing transport and disrupting electricity provision. According to a recent Save the Children report close to a million people – about 15 per cent of Lebanon’s total population – cannot afford basic goods, including food, water and hygiene products.
“This crisis hits everybody — Lebanese families, Palestinian and Syrian refugees alike. We will start seeing children dying from hunger before the end of the year,” said Jad Sakr, acting country director of Save the Children in Lebanon.
Sombre words, too, from the World Bank, which in a report released on 1 June, 2021, described Lebanon as enduring an economic and financial crisis
“likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century. In the face of colossal challenges, continuous policy inaction and the absence of a fully functioning executive authority threaten already dire socio-economic conditions and a fragile social peace with no clear turning point in the horizon.”
Confronted with a crisis of such epic proportions, Lebanon’s political class has responded in its time-honoured way: twiddling its thumbs and doing nothing. The past twelve months have been a period of comprehensive political stasis.
In the immediate aftermath of the Beirut explosion, the country’s then caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, resigned along with his cabinet. A new prime minister-designate, Saad al-Hariri, was nominated in October 2020 but was unable to form a new cabinet owing to political deadlock with Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun. Many moons later, on July 26, 2021, Aoun announced a new prime minister-designate: billionaire businessman Najib Mikati.
Already warmed up by two previous spells as prime minister (in 2005, and from 2011-2014) Mikati embarks on his new assignation with the confidence that springs from being Lebanon's richest man and one of the wealthiest in the Middle East; Forbes puts his net worth at $2.7 billion. Along with his brother and business partner, he owns the M1 Group, an international investment holding group with shares in South Africa’s telecom MTN Group, and had interests in real estate, oil and gas and other industries.
As with every prominent Lebanese politician, the whiff of corruption whirls round Mikati’s head. In 2019, he faced charges of illicit enrichment in his home town of Tripoli (one of Lebanon’s poorest cities). When Tripoli became the hub of a 2019 protest movement demanding the removal of corrupt politicians, Mikati was a favourite target for demonstrators.
That Mikati will prove the man of the hour – the hammer to smash through Lebanon’s enduring political stalemate and finally get things on the move – somehow seems unlikely.
Neoliberalism and the implosion of a nation
On 4 August 2021, Macron was back in Beirut to mark the first anniversary of its partial destruction. Joined by other global leaders, the French leader led a reprise of last year’s homilies, entreaties, rhetoric and finger-wagging, chiding Lebanon’s “failing” political class for its lapses while pledging further aid. In a video message relayed to the conference, US president Joe Biden echoed these sentiments and promised $100 million in additional emergency aid (a total of $370 million was pledged at the event).
In an earlier analysis, I looked at how imperialism and neoliberalism have over the years reinforced entrenched features of the Lebanese economy, specifically its lop-sided orientation to finance and services. Privatisation, I noted, had proved a bonanza for political parties and the Lebanese bourgeoisie. Austerity conditions imposed on the country by global financial institutions (in return for securing loans) had contributed to Lebanon’s chronic debt and extraordinary levels of debt-induced corruption. In such a context, I argued, the ‘reforms’ demanded by Macron and other neoliberal advocates “can only help preserve Lebanon’s existing sectarian political system while clearing the way for further neoliberal restructuring. That, indeed, is the goal.”
On 4 August, outside the latest roll-call of global leaders in Beirut, thousands of people were on the streets, their fury and frustration well captured by Shabbir’s eye-witness testimony. One year on from the Beirut blast, the investigation set up under Judge Tarek Bitar to determine its causes remains dead in its tracks. Officials have so far rejected Bitar’s requests to lift the immunity of several high-ranking lawmakers and security chiefs so that they can be questioned on charges of criminal negligence and homicide with probable intent. Thus far there have been few arrests, mostly of junior and mid-level port workers and officials.
An explosion in a port city; the implosion of a nation. There is something horrifyingly symbolic about what happened in Beirut a year ago.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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