“I saw death with my own eyes… I started feeling ‘is it over?’ I was looking around at the ceiling, just waiting for it to fall on us,” says Emmanuelle Lteif Khnaisser in an interview with the news outlet France 24. On the 4th of August, Emmanuelle had arrived with her husband, at the St. George Hospital University Medical Center in Beirut to give birth to her son. Yet, at 6:07pm, this joyful family moment was shattered.
An explosion equivalent to 200-300 tons of high explosives ripped through the capital of Lebanon, killing over 200 people and injuring approximately 5,000 others. In an instant, more than a quarter of a million people became homeless. The blast was felt as far away as Cyprus. All windows within a 2 mile radius of the explosion were blown out, an area in which approximately 750,000 people live.
Thankfully, Emmanuelle and her husband both survived the blast, and Emmanuelle later gave birth to George, a healthy baby boy, a “light in the darkness.” However, many were not so lucky.
The explosion was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate (often used as fertiliser, but also known to be used as an explosive) in a warehouse at the port. The chemical had been confiscated from a Moldovian-flagged cargo ship over 6 years ago, and had been unsafely stored at the port ever since. Consequentially, when a fire broke out and ignited the ammonium nitrate, the huge explosion was triggered.
A month later, the people of Beirut are still trying to pick up the pieces, with no hint of help from Lebanon’s government. Instead, the population of Beirut has come together in rescuing people from the rubble and in enormous cleanup efforts. Charities such as the Red Crescent and the Lebanese Red Cross have been particularly vital in such operations.
Yet, as the explosion caused an estimated £8-11 billion in damage, it is difficult to see how Beirutis alone will manage to rebuild their city.
Before the explosion, Lebanon had already been on the brink of economic collapse. The country was previously seen as one of the more stable states in the Middle East in recent years, however in the last 12 months, Lebanon has faced “a breakdown in the country’s banking system and skyrocketing inflation”. Those who previously had well-paying jobs are now on the breadline. Furthermore, approximately 60% of Lebanon’s imports (including food and medical supplies) previously came through the now destroyed Beirut Port, and 85% of the country’s grain was ruined in the blast.
Lebanon’s increasing economic instability has followed decades of political uncertainty in the country. Historically, Lebanese politics has been subject to sectarian conflict divided along the lines of religious factions. In 1943, this led to the ‘National Pact’, which lay the groundwork for certain prominent positions of the Lebanese government to be divided up between these religious groups. As Edwards and Hinchcliffe wrote: “a Christian President, a Sunni Prime Minister and a Shi’a Speaker of Parliament. The Druze…were to provide the Foreign Minister.” This system still exists today in Lebanon, but has also extended to all other governmental and bureaucratic positions. Hence, as no group has a clear majority, this has often led to indecision and inaction on behalf of the Lebanese government, with certain prominent families remaining at the top of the system for decades.
It has emerged that the President and Prime Minister of Lebanon were warned as recently as July about the unsafe storage of the ammonium nitrate at the port. However, nothing was done, and now the people of Beirut are seeing the explosion as not just a result of human error, inaction and indecision typical of the Lebanese political elites, but are holding the Lebanese government directly responsible for the murder of its own people.
Wide spread protests led to the resignation of the entire Lebanese government on the 10th of August, with the exception of the President, Michel Aoun, who requested to stay on until a new government is formed.
A few days after the explosion, President Macron of France organised an international conference to discuss providing aid to Lebanon, which raised over 250 million Euros. However, this is a far cry from the billions needed to rebuild Beirut. Furthermore, other states and international actors have demanded that Lebanon must agree to certain reforms to receive aid. Macron has stated that he will host another aid conference in mid-October to raise further funds, however he has “called for credible commitments from party leaders, including a timetable for implementing reforms and parliamentary elections within six to 12 months.” He has also declared that if no visible changes are made within the Lebanese system within the next 12 weeks, sanctions may be imposed on individuals in positions of power in Lebanon.
So what now? It appears that whilst Lebanon is facing one of its bleakest moments in recent years, additionally compounded by the problems posed by the coronavirus, there still remains an element of hope. Unlike past Lebanese crises, current tensions are not sectarian but directed by the people of Lebanon towards the pre-existing political elites. Unlike other states in the region, Lebanon, whilst plagued by corruption, has not slid into a military dictatorship. The government has resigned, meaning that there is now a real possibility of structural change occurring for good. And maybe, despite the fact that Beirut has been shattered, this will be the moment in which the people of Lebanon will unite to slowly rebuild their country from the ground up, aided by the international community.
The views in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.
“Conflicts in the Middle East since 1945” – Ebook by Beverley Milton Edwards & Peter Hinchcliffe, 2008.
“‘Light in the darkness’: Baby George born amid Beirut blast wreckage” – France 24
“How powerful was the Beirut blast?” – Reuters
“Beirut Explosion: What we know so far” – BBC
“Mapping the Damage from the Beirut Explosion” – New York Times
“Lebanon’s economy was already in crisis. Then the blast hit Beirut” – CNN
“Blame for Beirut Begins With a Leaky, Troubled Ship” – New York Times
“Lebanese protesters call for downfall of president and political elite over Beirut blast” – France 24
“Beirut Explosion: Lebanon’s government resigns as public anger mounts” – BBC
“International donors say aid to Lebanon should come with reform” – Euronews
“Beirut explosion: Macron ready to host Lebanon aid conference” – BBC