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Lebanon is one long tale of disaster and crisis

August 5, 2020 at 5:30 pm

A Lebanese flag is seen in the rubble after the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on 5 August 2020 [Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency]

Lebanon has a deserved reputation for resilience; an uncanny ability to rebuild and carry on when all seems lost. The last ten months, however, have tested that resilience, bringing a seemingly never-ending cycle of crisis after crisis.

A dollar crisis has led to economic collapse; a financial crisis has slashed the value of salaries and prevented depositors from accessing their savings; an entrenched and corrupt political class lacks both the will and ability to implement reforms; a global coronavirus pandemic has brought the country’s hospitals to their knees while exacerbating a social crisis; and now two massive, and wholly avoidable, explosions have devastated the capital, Beirut.

Yesterday’s explosions took place after 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire; the explosive material had been stored in Beirut port’s Warehouse 12 for six years after being confiscated from a ship. The blasts were felt across the city and as far away as Cyprus, approximately 150 miles away over the Mediterranean Sea.

Current tallies show that at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 injured in the blasts, while hundreds more remain unaccounted for. Buildings across Beirut were damaged; balconies and windows far away in the suburbs were shattered.

In the wake of the explosions yesterday afternoon, Nabih Berri — Lebanon’s Speaker of the House and leader of the Amal Movement — talked of Beirut, like a phoenix, rising from the ashes. The reality is that the blasts spell disaster for Lebanon.

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Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank estimated that more than 50 per cent of the country’s population would be pushed under the poverty line in 2020. These devastating explosions will accelerate Lebanon’s descent towards destitution and collapse.

Thousands of the capital’s residents have lost their livelihoods with shops, offices, and cars damaged irreparably. Anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 people have been left homeless after their houses were destroyed by the explosions. Repairs to the city could cost between $3 and $5 billion (between £2.2 and £3.8 billion), according to estimates by the governor of Beirut.

Even before Lebanon’s latest disaster, however, the state was barely limping along and was in desperate need of international aid to stem the increasingly inevitable and rapid economic collapse. Financial aid, however, has failed to materialise. This is primarily because international aid, particularly the $11 billion (£8.3 billion) donation pledged at the April 2018 Economic Conference for Development through Reforms and Business (CEDRE) in Paris, has been tied to reform of the system in Lebanon. This has simply not happened, so the aid has not been released.

In the wake of the explosions, however, aid is likely to come flooding into Lebanon – indeed, Saudi Arabia, France, and even Israel have already offered aid in various forms — but there are no guarantees that the funds will be used responsibly or effectively.

That the explosion was ostensibly caused by administrative mismanagement, according to high ranking politicians who have immediately sought to deflect blame, and that nationwide protests broke out on 17 October last year denouncing state-sponsored corruption, makes financial efficiency even less likely.

Instead, what happened yesterday is likely to encourage calls for bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to be pushed forward, despite an impasse over Central Bank losses. IMF negotiators, however, could remain insistent on resolving the issue before agreeing on a deal, lengthening the impasse unless politicians can resolve the deadlock.

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The IMF could, though, feel pressure to overlook the bank losses because of the explosions and agree on a bailout deal regardless. Even then, there is very little expectation or trust that the money would be used effectively. Meanwhile, Lebanon will continue to collapse.

The blasts have not only shattered Beirut’s shops, offices, homes and cars, but also destroyed Lebanon’s largest port. That’s a massive blow to a country which relies on imports for up to 80 per cent of its food. The explosions also damaged the national wheat silo in the port, although official reports claim that it contained very little grain at the time. Nevertheless, without the storage or a functioning port to receive imports by sea, there are serious concerns over food security.

This was already an issue in Lebanon because the economic crisis had caused significant price hikes for imported foods and goods, making even basic products too expensive for thousands of residents. The problem, however, is set to get much worse.

On top of all of this, Lebanon’s health sector is on the verge of collapse. Already struggling to cope with the rising number of coronavirus cases, it has to treat thousands of people with severe injuries sustained yesterday afternoon. The hospitals also rely heavily on imports for disposables and equipment and have had to reduce their services progressively as a result of the economic crisis.

Protests in Lebanon - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Protests in Lebanon – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Last night doctors working in hospitals which were themselves badly damaged in the explosions were seen tending to patients in car parks and turning others, who were often covered in blood, away from the Accident and Emergency rooms. Some victims travelled to Tripoli, 50 miles north of Beirut, to get treatment.

Residents have launched online campaigns to help find missing loved ones and others have opened their doors to people whose houses were destroyed by the explosion. With a history of social unrest, a fifteen-year civil war, domination by Syria, and then invasion and occupation by Israel, Lebanon’s story is one long tale of disaster and crisis after crisis.

Its politicians have an opportunity now to grasp the nettle and make the changes that are not only necessary but also what the long-suffering Lebanese people deserve. They really can’t afford not to take it.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.