At ground zero of the Lebanese apocalypse, a stench of dead rats seeps from huge piles of rotting grain. Broken silos teeter above, their sides ripped apart by the catastrophic explosion that also shattered Beirut’s soul; the content that should have fed a nation still spills over the massive ruins of its main port.
A year ago this week, one of the most serious industrial accidents on the planet triggered one of the largest explosions in history, ripping apart a city that was already at a tipping point. The mushroom cloud of chemicals that rose over the Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020 and the seismic force of the shock wave that devastated their homes and businesses swept across the world in high-definition horror. Even amid the chaos of a country that had allowed this to happen to its people, this was undoubtedly a time of reckoning.
Yet on the eve of the disaster’s first anniversary, Lebanon remains paralyzed and in anguish. The investigation into the explosion has stalled and its perpetrators are as far from accountability as ever. Worse still, for most Lebanese, the global aid promised in the wake of the destruction continues to be abandoned by the country’s rulers, who prefer the narrow privileges that flowed to them from a paralyzed system to a global rescue plan that could save the nation. country.
“Who would have thought that our begging bowl would be so big and so empty?” Said Nidal Osman, a construction supplier from Tripoli. “The world must be laughing at us. They wanted to give money and instead received a palm to the face. While they laugh, we cry ”.
In exchange for up to $ 11 billion in aid dollars, France demanded structural reforms to governance and transparency at all levels of spending. Billions more from Europe have been conditioned on an audit by the opaque central bank, which has been central to Lebanon’s wealth movement.
In the year since Beirut began to recover the pieces, the Lebanese currency has plummeted 15 times in value. Hyperinflation has left basic foodstuffs out of reach for much of its population. Vital medicines can no longer be found: on Friday, a four-year-old girl died from a scorpion sting because the antidote was not available. And there is not enough fuel to supply the disarmed power sector, or the private generator mafia that covers the gap, charging exorbitant prices to do so.
Rather than giving birth to an era of redemption, the explosion has come to define the total dysfunction of a state that has for all intents and purposes failed. His political class is still unable to form a government, still arguing over the allocation of ministries as prizes to strengthen their fiefdoms. Likewise, state institutions are subordinate to entrenched factions. This country’s central bank reserves have fallen below mandatory requirements, signifying an imminent end to subsidies in place to safeguard even the middle classes. The Lebanese have joined Syrians and other abandoned peoples in the region to embark on the journey to the Mediterranean on rafts to flee their conditions, no matter the risk. And there is no solution except a vast international bailout that would mean cutting off a system that has prevailed for 30 years since the end of the civil war.
As its people continue to absorb the magnitude of Lebanon’s collapse, some are beginning to confront an unpleasant view that the very foundations of the state were flawed in each of its incarnations. From the Ottoman empire to the French mandate, the Syrian tutelage, the ravages of the civil war and then the rentier system that followed 1991. Do you agreeBecause it ended the conflict, Lebanon has never had an easy streak. But the last three decades in particular have laid the groundwork for its demise.
“After Taif, [the warlords] they got consolation prizes, rather than being punished for keeping up the war for so long, “said Nora Boustany, a journalism professor at the American University of Beirut, who covered the conflict and its aftermath. “They went to the city. It was a bonanza for them. The Syrians knew it was happening and they also wanted a piece of the action. To keep the peace, there was an arrangement with the justice system. This created a culture of impunity and became the norm.
“Rafic Hariri moved forward with reconstruction,” Boustany said of the former prime minister who presided over the postwar reconstruction of Lebanon, amassing a great fortune along the way. Saudi Arabia and Syria were instrumental in rebuilding Lebanon, establishing networks of patronage and spheres of influence that played a decisive role in the country’s affairs, while at the same time unleashing patrons to corner fortunes.
“There was a wealth, a generosity and a showy life that was brought to Beirut,” he said. “This rubbed off on his circle. The arrangement was to let this happen to keep the peace. They all kept their snouts on the trough. They separated aid and money from the big funds and kept stealing. There was so much money for institutional development and almost nothing went to it. “
Last week, Lebanon appointed the country’s richest man, Nijab Mikati, a two-time prime minister and a resident of its poorest city, Tripoli, as its designated leader and tasked him with forming a government. For the past 12 months, Saad Hariri, another former leader and son of the assassinated Rafic Hariri, had been unable to do so: his various cabinet line-ups were rejected by the country’s president, Michel Aoun. Hariri, a product of the system, and a beneficiary of it until his fortune changed, had been tasked with breaking it down from France. His other former employer, Saudi Arabia, had left him in 2017 for handing over political power to Hezbollah, which has since cemented its influence under the cover of Aoun.
“What is happening now is the clash between two projects, two ideas,” said Khaldoun Charif, a veteran Tripoli analyst on Lebanese affairs. “People need to understand that corruption is the system here. It was enshrined as such during the implementation of Taif in 1991. Everyone received gifts to start with. It was the age of generosity. They all started stealing money and were encouraged to do so. There was no possibility of a normal state as envisioned now, given the system implemented back then.
“Every business (electricity, water, garbage collection, reconstruction) cost the Lebanese people much more than it should, because giant cuts were being paid to political actors. And now they recognize the corruption? What changed? Hezbollah became the most powerful player in the country. “
Some days, before the scorching summer heat kicks in, port workers collect dead rats from grain silos and dump them into the bay below. “It’s just that they smell so bad,” said Abu Haitham, a junior officer in one of the security services. The symbolism of the rodents crowded into the blast site is not lost in Abu Haitham, nor in other Lebanese marked by the betrayal of a state that has never really served them and seems unlikely to do so now.
“If now is not the time to change, when is it?” asked Yarr Hadid, 24, a student who, like her siblings, wants to go to Belgium. “Are we going to accept that this is the way it is in Lebanon? If the regional actors and the Europeans agreed that the state be built like this, or they really have to help dismantle it and build anew or be honest about the fact that we are doomed. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism