There are no words to describe the atrocities caused by the tragedy that struck Beirut and its people on August 4 at 6:08 p.m. Hundreds dead or missing, thousands injured, and even more left homeless. The physical and infrastructural damage is massive, yet the psychological toll may be even worse. In the past ten months, the Lebanese rose against a decades-old system of sectarian, economic, and social violence, only to be silenced yet again by an oligarchy that dug an ever deeper grave for an already ailing population. The desolate narrative of resiliency that has so often accompanied the Lebanese people must finally be put to rest. No society can repeatedly withstand governance failures, exploitative policies, the pillaging of its state, the disregard for its basic rights, and all forms of violence it’s subjected to.
Those fortunate enough to have survived who are not still dealing with the immediate aftermath of the explosion are consumed by pain, anger, and despair, but also one main question: Who is responsible?
The timing of the catastrophe is particularly conspicuous: one week after clashes between Hezbollah and Israel, three days before the verdict of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon regarding the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and in the midst of Lebanon’s worst economic and financial crisis. A range of theories have been circulating: The main one concerns conflicting reports regarding the involvement of Israeli fighter jets in setting off the initial fire that led to the explosion in Warehouse 12 of the Beirut port. While many witnesses claim to have heard the sound of jets in the air, no conclusive and verified evidence has been made public yet.
What we do know, however, is that the hazardous presence of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate a handful of kilometers away from the heart of Beirut is the result of utter incompetence, perilous corruption, and a fatal political leadership.
The ammonium nitrate had reportedly been stored on board of a ship headed from Georgia toward Mozambique in 2013. The ship was forced to dock in Beirut’s port for technical reasons and its owners abandoned it. In 2015, the ammonium was unloaded because the ship was in poor shape, under the condition that the substance would be stored somewhere safe until it was resold. According to an investigation by journalist Riad Kobeissi, evidence signals that the explosive material was never resold because the chief of Customs, Badri Daher, was looking to sell it to a specific entity, but failed to get a judge’s approval because it fell outside the jurisdiction of the court. Daher was told by the judge to refer to the Judicial Council, yet neither he nor the concerned government ministries followed up on the matter. Once again, corruption and profiteering plague Lebanon, except that this time, the outcome was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever.
It would be inaccurate, though, to treat this as a one-time accident for which the Lebanese Customs are solely responsible. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the Ministry of Interior, the Port Authority of Beirut, and the Lebanese Customs all hold authorities and responsibilities in the mishandling of the situation.
This event is also reflective of the broader logic that shapes governance dynamics and political decision-making in Lebanon. The explosion is the most recent manifestation, unfortunately, of a chain of systemic and structural disasters and crises. A wretched oligarchy that is incapable of governing has presided over socioeconomic inequalities in the pre-civil war period, the sectarian massacres of 1975-1990, the never-ending waste management crisis, and the theft of people’s deposits in the ongoing financial collapse. It has been said before and it must be said again: The Lebanese establishment – political and financial – is incapable of representing the interests of the people without compromising itself.
With that said, any kind of official investigation – transparent or not, through international channels or local – will not yield the outcome the Lebanese are owed. In fact, concerned political actors have already begun denying responsibility and pointing fingers at others, as they always do. To put it simply, an accountability process that does not bring the real oligarchs to justice, and that is not overseen by a transitional authority brought to power by the people without political interference, is void of legitimacy.
In addition to the shock and devastation surrounding the explosion, Lebanon is also dealing with the looming dangers of the financial elites’ economic plan, not to mention a highly dangerous second wave of COVID-19. With the apocalyptic ruins of Beirut not enough to shake elites from their thrones, hope has become increasingly difficult to come by. The people of Lebanon need all the help and solidarity they can get to save themselves from the claws of those in power. In these moments, it feels like all we have to hold onto is each other and our romantic, fainting memories of an October 17 uprising that was robbed from us – like so many other things in this country.