.
T

he devastating blast in Beirut on August 4 is fueling comparisons to conditions that culminated in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war between 1975 and 1990. Specifically, it has exposed the Lebanese state and political elites’ disinterest in quality governance. The first consequence of the explosion has been the announcement of the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, coinciding with a series of Ministerial resignations over the weekend. Ultimately, this will be the first step in a series of changes that bring about massive structural change to Lebanon’s government. The series of events emanating from this flashpoint moment should be a focus for policymakers as the country experiences increasingly destabilizing conditions.

The explosion in Beirut was caused by blatant negligence on the part of the Lebanese government that allowed for an accident at a warehouse filled with over 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which was confiscated six years earlier. Reports suggest that nearly 300,000 people may have lost their homes in the explosion, with officials citing damages of roughly $15 billion in total. Overall, some 200 people have died and another 6,000 were injured by the explosion, with search operations underway for others still missing.

The incident also destroyed the nation’s largest grain storage site, home to roughly 85 percent of its grain reserves. Lebanon’s status as a net food importer makes this loss all the more critical. Addressing such an event seems unfathomable and can function as a flashpoint for change due to the overwhelming nature of economic, societal, and political hardship already occurring in the country today.

The blast comes at a dire moment in Lebanese politics and society. Anti-government protests have persisted for months and almost toppled the current government last October. The ousting of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived with so-called promises of reform that have yet to materialize. This resulted in protests in recent weeks prior to the public’s realization of government negligence that caused the explosion.

The current state of economic affairs in Lebanon is also dismal. This is exemplified by a recently released government budget with an overall projected deficit of 7 percent of GDP for 2020. Fiscal issues are a direct result of an inflated bureaucracy that exists due to patronage networks that foster waste, corruption, and ultimately negligence through the promotion of sectarian hiring and loyalties in government. Adding to complications are massive levels of inflation that have sent the real value of the Lebanese Lira, based on the black market due to an inaccurate and harmful currency peg, to value at approximately $9,000.

Monetary failures as a result of poor governance are causing economic disintegration and political unrest. The onset of COVID-19 is exacerbating these issues—the government shuttered businesses, which in turn shut down much of the economy. This has harmed the most vulnerable in Lebanon, pushing more than half the population under the poverty line.

The convergence of all these issues make the country ripe for change, and the Beirut explosion may be the catalyst. Typically, events such as the explosion can spur nationalism and looking inward. However, a different form of nationalistic pride appears to be forming, in Lebanon—one that is not tied to the state.

Instead, unity is presenting itself in sustained and enlarged anti-government protests and calls for systemic reform. Massive protests last weekend highlight the desire for change. Ultimately, this new wave of protests feels different and reflects a societal rejection of the status quo.

One concern that stems from such a shift is stability: the nation can just as likely fall back into sectarian civil conflict as well. Yet, while Lebanon’s long history of ethnic violence must be considered, the explosion in Beirut appears to be breaking these harder sectarian divisions. The shared suffering of the Lebanese people for months, compounded by COVID-19, is establishing a shared identity that is hardening with the onset of the accident. While any premature attempt to downplay sectarian issues in the country should not be taken lightly, a new and united society appears to be forming around a common enemy in the state, which may help to prevent backsliding into ethnic violence.

Major shifts in the government and political class are necessary to bring positive change for the Lebanese people. This moment and recent developments may be a flashpoint if the Lebanese people reject the old power structures in place. The current caretaker government should work to immediately institute new elections in-line with the general populace’s demands. Only a new government without entrenched corruption can then institute the reforms necessary to support the will of the people and establish a functional system of governance. Unfortunately, the caretaker government is resisting this approach, as reflected by its decision to institute a state of emergency that appears to be signaling an incoming military crackdown on protests.

In the meantime, humanitarian aid to those most vulnerable in Lebanon, with particular focus on victims of the blast, will be crucial to preventing a regression into civil conflict. Lebanese organizations and domestic actors should continue to press the international community for humanitarian aid, which has thus far pledged roughly $300 million. The stability of the country rests on the ability of the people to afford basic resources and shelter, which has been threatened for more than half the country since the onset of COVID-19. The international community is capable of ensuring stability via aid.

We often speak of moments that define a nation and people, and the explosion in Beirut seems to be this moment. It should lead to a massive shift in the governance systems that have plagued the country with corruption for decades. The blast can signify the swift rejection of the current state of affairs in the coming weeks, and with sustained pressure, may lead to better days for the people of Lebanon.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois has years of experience working for NGOs on policy analysis, research, and program management related to governance, conflict, and stabilization. Today, he works as a researcher in the U.S.-Sudan Initiative to promote peace in Sudan.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The Beirut Blast is a Flashpoint for Change in a Failing Lebanese State

August 17, 2020

T

he devastating blast in Beirut on August 4 is fueling comparisons to conditions that culminated in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war between 1975 and 1990. Specifically, it has exposed the Lebanese state and political elites’ disinterest in quality governance. The first consequence of the explosion has been the announcement of the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, coinciding with a series of Ministerial resignations over the weekend. Ultimately, this will be the first step in a series of changes that bring about massive structural change to Lebanon’s government. The series of events emanating from this flashpoint moment should be a focus for policymakers as the country experiences increasingly destabilizing conditions.

The explosion in Beirut was caused by blatant negligence on the part of the Lebanese government that allowed for an accident at a warehouse filled with over 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which was confiscated six years earlier. Reports suggest that nearly 300,000 people may have lost their homes in the explosion, with officials citing damages of roughly $15 billion in total. Overall, some 200 people have died and another 6,000 were injured by the explosion, with search operations underway for others still missing.

The incident also destroyed the nation’s largest grain storage site, home to roughly 85 percent of its grain reserves. Lebanon’s status as a net food importer makes this loss all the more critical. Addressing such an event seems unfathomable and can function as a flashpoint for change due to the overwhelming nature of economic, societal, and political hardship already occurring in the country today.

The blast comes at a dire moment in Lebanese politics and society. Anti-government protests have persisted for months and almost toppled the current government last October. The ousting of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived with so-called promises of reform that have yet to materialize. This resulted in protests in recent weeks prior to the public’s realization of government negligence that caused the explosion.

The current state of economic affairs in Lebanon is also dismal. This is exemplified by a recently released government budget with an overall projected deficit of 7 percent of GDP for 2020. Fiscal issues are a direct result of an inflated bureaucracy that exists due to patronage networks that foster waste, corruption, and ultimately negligence through the promotion of sectarian hiring and loyalties in government. Adding to complications are massive levels of inflation that have sent the real value of the Lebanese Lira, based on the black market due to an inaccurate and harmful currency peg, to value at approximately $9,000.

Monetary failures as a result of poor governance are causing economic disintegration and political unrest. The onset of COVID-19 is exacerbating these issues—the government shuttered businesses, which in turn shut down much of the economy. This has harmed the most vulnerable in Lebanon, pushing more than half the population under the poverty line.

The convergence of all these issues make the country ripe for change, and the Beirut explosion may be the catalyst. Typically, events such as the explosion can spur nationalism and looking inward. However, a different form of nationalistic pride appears to be forming, in Lebanon—one that is not tied to the state.

Instead, unity is presenting itself in sustained and enlarged anti-government protests and calls for systemic reform. Massive protests last weekend highlight the desire for change. Ultimately, this new wave of protests feels different and reflects a societal rejection of the status quo.

One concern that stems from such a shift is stability: the nation can just as likely fall back into sectarian civil conflict as well. Yet, while Lebanon’s long history of ethnic violence must be considered, the explosion in Beirut appears to be breaking these harder sectarian divisions. The shared suffering of the Lebanese people for months, compounded by COVID-19, is establishing a shared identity that is hardening with the onset of the accident. While any premature attempt to downplay sectarian issues in the country should not be taken lightly, a new and united society appears to be forming around a common enemy in the state, which may help to prevent backsliding into ethnic violence.

Major shifts in the government and political class are necessary to bring positive change for the Lebanese people. This moment and recent developments may be a flashpoint if the Lebanese people reject the old power structures in place. The current caretaker government should work to immediately institute new elections in-line with the general populace’s demands. Only a new government without entrenched corruption can then institute the reforms necessary to support the will of the people and establish a functional system of governance. Unfortunately, the caretaker government is resisting this approach, as reflected by its decision to institute a state of emergency that appears to be signaling an incoming military crackdown on protests.

In the meantime, humanitarian aid to those most vulnerable in Lebanon, with particular focus on victims of the blast, will be crucial to preventing a regression into civil conflict. Lebanese organizations and domestic actors should continue to press the international community for humanitarian aid, which has thus far pledged roughly $300 million. The stability of the country rests on the ability of the people to afford basic resources and shelter, which has been threatened for more than half the country since the onset of COVID-19. The international community is capable of ensuring stability via aid.

We often speak of moments that define a nation and people, and the explosion in Beirut seems to be this moment. It should lead to a massive shift in the governance systems that have plagued the country with corruption for decades. The blast can signify the swift rejection of the current state of affairs in the coming weeks, and with sustained pressure, may lead to better days for the people of Lebanon.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois has years of experience working for NGOs on policy analysis, research, and program management related to governance, conflict, and stabilization. Today, he works as a researcher in the U.S.-Sudan Initiative to promote peace in Sudan.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.