Following this past terrible Tuesday, it is easy to think about what happened in Beirut as a horrible act of God, of impersonal fate intervening to devastate this already crumbling country.
But instead it is rage at Lebanon’s corrupt and incompetent political class that ought to be the dominant emotion.
Following Tuesday’s gargantuan explosion — which killed hundreds, wounded thousands, and left up to 300,000 people homeless — I felt nothing but contempt for a political elite which is as hapless as it is corrupt. For this was no act of God, but is entirely the fault of men.
Take the likely cause of the carnage: an explosion so vast that it obliterated whole neighborhoods of the city near its epicenter at the port, producing a sound so deafening it could be heard in Cyprus 250 kilometers away.
A huge store of the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate — 2,750 tonnes’ worth — has been stored in the port unsafely for six years. If this amounts to an accident, it was an accident waiting to happen.
Lebanese officials were warned time and again of the danger. As recently as six months ago, the latest inspectors of the consignment bluntly warned that if it was not moved and secured it would “blow up all of Beirut”.
And yet, criminally, as ever, nothing was done. This from a government whose management of infrastructure is so poor that there are nightly blackouts in Beirut, where the tap water is unsafe to drink.
The bleak truth is that Lebanon has been rotting from within for quite a while in political risk terms, plagued by a fragmented elite who tends to see the intricate division of its government along religious and ethnic lines as a sort of spoils system.
The Lebanese state has been wholly captured by these parochial sectarian interests, whose leaders have grown fabulously wealthy running services and utilities for their own gain.
Power is doled out in this unedifying manner to maintain Lebanon’s precarious political balance between the mosaic of militarised sectarian factions.
This has led Lebanon to becoming effectively a failed state, as the goal of such inept power-sharing is not to ably govern the country so much as to perpetually buy off its warlords so as to avert another catastrophic civil war, as occurred between 1975–1990.
The results of years of fecklessness are plain to see in the country’s cratering economy. Nearly half Lebanon’s population live below the poverty line, as an eye-watering 35 per cent of its people are out of work. Since the spring, the value of Lebanon’s currency, the lira, has plummeted by a drastic 80 per cent.
In March, the country defaulted on its debts for the first time. The present rate of public debt amounts to $92bn overall, nearly 170 per cent of GDP, one of the highest rates in the world.
The hapless government, despite being desperate enough to go to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, refuses to close the deal, as the organisation insists on a fundamental reform of the Lebanese state as the price of rescue. Of course, Lebanon’s selfish elites would rather see the country fall around their ears than accept structural reform. They will fight to the death to keep the rickety system as it is.
Major political parties within the country also fail to put Lebanon first even in their strategic calculations. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, often the kingmakers of Lebanese politics and always a major force to be reckoned with, are far more interested as to what their financier Tehran desires than in the regeneration of their country as a whole.
For example, in 2013, in accordance with Iran’s wishes, Hezbollah chose to fight alongside the discredited Assad regime, even though doing so served Iranian interests and predictably hurt those of its own country.
Following Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, a number of Gulf state countries leveled sanctions against the Lebanese government, both hitting its vital tourist industry and halting remittances, another major source of income as more Lebanese live abroad than actually reside in the country.
Things finally came to a head in October 2019, when, utterly disgusted with all of this, major spontaneous protests arose in over 70 Lebanese towns, decrying endemic corruption, endless austerity without gain, and even the country’s lack of basic infrastructure. The Prime Minister was removed; another was put in his place.
And absolutely nothing changed.
So to return to the tragedy of last week, Lebanon is indeed cursed — but far more by its avaricious and inept leaders than by the gods.
Main image credit: Getty