On 4 August 2020, an enormous explosion tore through Beirut. In the blink of an eye, homes, businesses, medical centres, schools, government buildings, any structure in the path of the blast wave was badly damaged or destroyed as thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate blew up. The Port of Beirut – a nerve centre of Lebanon – has been obliterated. More than one-hundred and fifty people are now known to have died. Thousands more have been injured. The explosion was so powerful that it registered as an earthquake on Cyprus, some two-hundred and seventy-six kilometres away across the Mediterranean. The explosion has dealt a body blow to a country that was already on its knees. The socio-economic situation in Lebanon is so dire that the question is not how will they rebuild, but can they at all?
The Lebanese are a people known for their resilience. It is something that they have had to have. Lebanon is a country that seems to have the worst luck. For fifteen years, a civil war pitted the country’s Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims against one another. During the war, parts of Lebanon were occupied by Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian forces. In 1990, the war finally ended, but left the entire country under the de facto occupation of Syria. In 2005, the Cedar Revolution forced the Syrian military out of Lebanon. Then the country was almost immediately plunged into war with its long-time foe Israel. The last decade has seen Lebanon struggle to cope as three crises – a major influx of refugees from Syria, the spill over of the Syrian Civil War into Lebanon and rampant corruption – has led to economic free fall. Today, the Lebanese Pound is worth a fraction of what it once was. The country now has rolling blackouts. But the events of 4 August were different. For many Lebanese people, the explosion simply epitomised all that is wrong with their country.
As the people of Beirut began to clear away the debris that had once been their homes and businesses, anger began to swell. It is now known that the ammonium nitrate that caused the blast had been improperly stored in the port for years, having been seized from a Moldovan-flagged cargo ship in 2014. For a people that already deeply distrust, even despise, their government, this appears to have been the final straw. Protests have already broken out across Beirut. People who were already struggling just to pay rent and buy basic food supplies are now also homeless. Images of one woman kicking a government car before being dragged away by a uniformed official summarise the growing anger. The Lebanese people want answers. They want justice. They want change. They want to see Beirut – and Lebanon – rebuilt in far more ways than just the material. In fact, the rebuild seems to be almost secondary compared to the want for political change. As one woman told a Sky News team, “If other countries are going to help Lebanon, and if they’re going to give the money to the government, then it’s like they’re giving money to those who destroyed us and killed us.”
Lebanon’s current government has only been in existence since January. Since then, it has had to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, a collapsing economy and now this explosion. It may seem as though it has not been given a fair run, but it is a government filled with familiar faces. These are the same people who have dominated Lebanese politics for years, the same people who are seen, be it fairly or unfairly, as corrupt, the same people who many members of the public blame for taking their country all the way to breaking point.
This is where the blast in Beirut brings to mind the Halifax Explosion.
One-hundred and three years before the explosion in Beirut, the Canadian port city of Halifax was flattened under similar circumstances. On 6 December 1917, the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian cargo ship Imo. Minutes later, the Mont-Blanc’s cargo of TNT went up. Halifax was obliterated both by the blast and the tidal surges it created. The First Nation community of Tuft’s Cove simply ceased to exist. Like Lebanon, Canada was dealing with a major crisis in the form of WW1. Like Lebanon, there was a general sense of disconnect with the government in London. (Canada was a British colony at the time.)
But Canada was not reliant on imports for its food. It could also turn to the mighty British Treasury for rebuilding funds. Lebanon has no such safety net. The rebuilding of Beirut and its port will be largely dependent on international support. Again, unlike Lebanon, Canada was not crippled by corruption so great that there were widespread fears for the integrity of any internationally donated rebuilding funds. The socio-economic repercussions of the explosion in Beirut will be far greater than those of the Halifax Explosion.
It is little wonder that crowds of Lebanese people mobbed French President Emmanuel Macron when he visited Beirut in the days after the blast. France maintains good relations with Lebanon, its former colony. Many people in Lebanon are probably hoping that France and the international community will oversee the rebuild, so that donated funds are shielded from corrupt hands. At the time of writing, it is not yet clear how viable this idea actually is. Money and aid has been pledged by countries all across the world, but, so far, neither Lebanon, France nor the wider international community has come up with any concrete ideas at all on how to rebuild – or even where to begin.
Lebanon is now facing crisis piled upon crisis. Its financial crisis would cripple any economy, let alone one in the most unstable part of the world. An explosion in a capital city on this scale would bring almost any country to its knees, let alone one that was already dealing with such deep socio-economic issues. There were already fears that, like Venezuela, Lebanon was on its way to becoming a failed state through economics, as opposed to conflict. The explosion has only heightened those fears.
The way forward for Lebanon is unclear. It is also unclear how Beirut can be returned to its former glory, if it even can be at all. But one thing is certain: the explosion may just prove to be the final straw for an already vulnerable country.