In October 2019, there was hope in Lebanon. The corruption, which was sustained by an almost feudal political economy, had led to a non-sectarian wave of protests which precipitated the end of Saad Hariri’s tenure as prime minister. The change in leadership, however, did not lead to a change in the system. The explosion that laid waste to large parts of central Beirut on Tuesday rocked a country that was already going through severe economic turmoil and a public health crisis, greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, the death toll was at least 135, over 5,000 have been injured. Up to 2,50,000 people have been rendered homeless, hospitals are overflowing and there is a real danger of essential supplies to the city being cut off.
While the cause of the explosion is still not certain, it appears, prima facie, that negligence, not foul play or terrorism, could be responsible. The blast was caused by nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized by customs’ officials. The destruction and loss of life have reminded many Lebanese citizens of the horrors of the civil war that devastated the country from 1975 to 1990. This period was followed by sectarianism and an economy that crumbled under non-performing assets and widespread corruption.
For some time now, even before the pandemic, an IMF economic relief package has been the hope for the citizens of Lebanon. Fortunately, the international community seems to be stepping up. West Asian Arab countries, which had scaled back their economic engagement and support to Beirut due to Iran’s alleged interference, have come forward with medical supplies. The US and Western European countries, which had been demanding changes in Lebanon’s polity and economy before offering a bailout package, have also stepped in and French President Emmanuel Macron has flown to Beirut to express his support. This show of solidarity must continue beyond the short term. For the ruling class in Beirut, reform is now the only option, a responsibility they must fulfil for a people that have already suffered too much.