An enormous explosion has ripped through Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, killing at least 135 people and rendering an estimated 300,000 Lebanese residents homeless. The explosion detonated at Beirut’s central port, of which an estimated 80% of the country’s imports arrive. President Michel Aoun has stated that the blast was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored at the port after being confiscated from a Moldovan cargo vessel in 2013. The reasons for this amount of explosive material to be stored in a commercial, urban port for so long remain unclear. In the aftermath of the blast, many Lebanese have pointed the finger at the endemic corruption which has plagued Lebanon for many years.
An industrial disaster on this scale could not have struck Lebanon at a worse time. The country’s capital has been racked by protest for almost a year that have centred on the nation’s deepening economic crisis and government corruption. The Lebanese pound has been devalued by almost 75% as demand for American dollars, a more stable currency, fuels a huge currency black market. This weakness has crippled Lebanon’s economy, fuelled unemployment, and reduced its GDP from £55 billion to £44 billion. This crisis has been worsened by Lebanon’s reliance on imports, 80% of which passed through the central port of Beirut. The explosion instantly destroyed the majority of the country’s import capacity, as well as grain silos containing an estimated 85% of Lebanon’s grain supplies. Aside from the horrific damage to the city centre, and the dozens of lives lost, it is likely that the long-term impact of this blast will be felt in the form of food shortages and worsened economic downturn.
Lebanon’s political infrastructure is also in a weak position to deal with such an immense crisis. Last week saw a spike in coronavirus that caused lockdown to be reimposed, and hospitals were reaching capacity before they were destroyed and flooded with injured people. Former Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned from office the day before the explosion, citing his fear that the country was becoming a “failed state”. So-called ‘hunger crimes’ have become prominent in the capital, as people are robbed at knifepoint for baby food and rice. Lina Mounzer’s article in The New York Times, published on the eve of the explosion, expressed the exhaustion of Lebanon’s people; “misery is now palpable across the country”. This was prior to the explosion.
The working hypothesis of many Lebanese is that corruption at the port, which has previously been targeted by anti-corruption protesters, meant that such a huge amount of explosive material was stored unsafely. Government vehicles arriving at the scene of the disaster were greeted by furious citizens, highlighting the rage that many people in Lebanon feel towards the political ruling class.
This round of protests has not played out along party lines. Instead, they are an outpouring of sheer frustration at the state of Lebanon’s political system. This disaster could ignite a fresh wave of protest by highlighting the very real damage that corruption in ports can do to the country. At the same time, as the country’s food resources deplete and hope for a peaceful solution fades, the protests may die out. For now, Lebanon’s citizens are once again forced to pick up the pieces.