Analysis

Beirut Blast Kicks Off Blame Game, but Change Will Only Arise From the Rubble

Lebanon’s government understands it must produce the culprits for the Beirut disaster if it wants to survive ■ But it’s the impoverished citizens who may have final say

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A soldier stands atop rubble at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020.
A soldier stands atop rubble at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Many senior Lebanese officials have been poring over their documents in the last couple of days, reading through their correspondence and past dictums in a feverish search for any proof of their innocence.

On Wednesday, the country’s High Defense Council, headed by President Michel Aoun, ordered the formation of a top commission of inquiry into the disaster, which will present its initial findings within five days. This prompted the general manager of Beirut port, Hassan Koraytem, to declare in the media that he sent several letters to the relevant authorities warning them about the continued storage of dangerous materials at the harbor.

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The letters, Koraytem said, were sent to the heads of the security services, the army, intelligence services, and the justice ministry – but nothing was done.

Koraytem has reason to worry; he is in charge of the harbor’s activity – owned by Lebanon’s ports authority – and he is the one who will pay. But his head is not the only one awaiting the guillotine. On Thursday, similar calls were made to place officials under house arrest, including the intelligence chief, police and army commanders, the head of the justice system and the customs chief Badri Daher, who is responsible for the maintenance of the port’s warehouses. Other voices demanded an international commission of inquiry.  

But it is advisable not to hold one’s breath. Lebanon is not about to lose its military and administrative leadership – not for now, anyway. Investigations by journalists have already “found” direct culprits – albeit not high-ranking ones, but culpable figures nevertheless. The culprits in question are a group of welders who, shortly before the blast, were welding a fence and a gate that were not sealed and allowed access to the platform where the material was stored.

A woman yells at Lebanese soldiers as French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, which suffered extensive damage from the explosion, August 6, 2020.
A woman yells at Lebanese soldiers as French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, which suffered extensive damage from the explosion, August 6, 2020.Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

Witnesses on the ground said the welders finished their work shortly before 5:00 P.M., and as they left, a plume of smoke was seen where they had been working. Shortly after, the first explosion took place, followed by the massive blast that shattered the port and nearby neighborhoods. The welders’ manager said the team finished working hours before the blast and were at a significant distance, but it remains to be seen how this testimony will hold up in a tribunal whose members include senior ministers and security officials who may also be implicated.  

At the same time, the military has been tasked with maintaining public order in Beirut – especially the port area – as well as the airport, through which Western and Arab airlifts have been arriving, carrying medical equipment, field hospitals and doctors. The military takeover of daily life in the city has already sparked controversy, since the soldiers are not only preventing anti-government demonstrations – they are blocking health ministry staff from receiving aid at the airport. Moreover, the health ministry is controlled by Hezbollah, raising fears it could take control of the aid packages and distribute them as it sees fit.

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron poured a small barrel of oil onto the flames of the political conflicts in which the narratives that will determine who is to blame for this disaster are being cooked. He did so by telling the Lebanese with whom he met at the port that French aid will not be delivered into “corrupt hands.” To whom do these “corrupt hands” belong? Obviously, he didn’t specify, but in his view, it would be more accurate to ask who isn’t corrupt in Lebanon.

Macron, the first and so far only foreign leader to visit Lebanon since the explosion occurred, has already been dubbed the “high president” – a riff on the “high commissioner” who came to give orders and change Lebanon’s political situation in colonial times. After being greeted at the airport by Lebanon’s president, he rushed to the port to see the scope of the destruction and be photographed, as is right and proper, with a group of Lebanese asking him to help them.

Like his foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who visited Lebanon just three weeks ago, Macron spoke bluntly to the country’s three leaders – the president, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri – during their meeting at the presidential palace. He told them that France was willing to help Lebanon and to recruit other Western countries to do so too, but in exchange, Lebanon must not only implement economic reforms, but also set up a new political system.

“Political agreement,” or “political covenant,” is a familiar and threatening term in Lebanon’s political world. What it means in practice is passing a new election law, dismantling the system whereby senior government positions are allocated based on ethnic affiliation, removing Hezbollah from governmental positions and setting up effective oversight institutions to root out the corruption that has dragged Lebanon down into the worst economic crisis in its history.

It also means implementing economic reforms such as redefining the central bank’s authority and its ties with commercial banks; reorganizing the electric corporation, which is the main cause of the country’s enormous deficit and its national debt of some $90 billion; repairing the failed tax collection system; and setting new national priorities in the budget.

Civil defense ambulances from Hezbollah enter the site of the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, August 6, 2020
Civil defense ambulances from Hezbollah enter the site of the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, August 6, 2020Credit: Hussein Malla/AP

Macron apparently seeks to force Lebanon to sign a modern-day version of the Taif Agreement, the 1989 pact that ended the country’s 15-year civil war. For all its problems, that agreement has kept Lebanon together and prevented a new civil war.

The Taif Agreement is what mandated the allocation of cabinet and parliamentary positions based on ethnic lines, to ensure that Christians and Muslims were equally represented, as well as Sunnis and Shi’ites. Until then, government jobs had been allocated according to a formula that gave Christians primacy over Muslims.

The agreement’s goal was to prevent any one ethnic group from being able to control state institutions, thereby forcing different ethnic groups to build coalitions with each other to obtain a parliamentary majority capable of forming a government. This goal was in fact achieved.

In the Lebanese parliament, which has 128 seats, Christians and Muslims each have 54 seats, with the Muslim seats equally divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites – 27 for each. The remaining 20 seats are divided among smaller ethnic groups. Thus, there is no possibility of any single group obtaining a parliamentary majority and coalitions must be forged in order to rule.

The agreement’s signatories thought this arrangement would eventually enable Lebanon to dissolve its ethnic structure and create a functioning democracy. But life is a little more complicated than the paper on which the agreement was signed, and the political absurdities it created have turned Lebanon into a country of latifundia, in which the leaders of ethnic groups and political parties divide the political and budgetary spoils among themselves.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron upon his arrival at the airport in Beirut, August 6, 2020
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron upon his arrival at the airport in Beirut, August 6, 2020Credit: DALATI NOHRA/Reuters

This, for instance, is what produced the alliance between Shi’ite Hezbollah, which is loyal to Syria and Iran, and the Free Patriotic Movement led by the Christian Michel Aoun, a former military chief of staff who fought the Syrians until the final moments of the civil war, then found asylum in Paris in 1990. This is also what creates the periodically shifting alliances between Druze and Muslim leaders.

All this has enabled Hezbollah, which has only three ministers in the 30-person Lebanese cabinet, to nevertheless create a supporting coalition of 11 ministers. That’s the amount needed to block any major decision, since the Lebanese constitution requires all major decisions to be approved by at least two thirds of the cabinet. The organization thereby obtained enormous political leverage, which it will not give up even if the French president pounds on his Lebanese counterpart’s desk until it breaks.

If Macron indeed intends to demand economic and political reforms under the auspices of a new political agreement or covenant and present them as a unified package of conditions – without which Lebanon will be unable to obtain international aid – he is likely to find himself on par with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has long since become a joke in Lebanon. The likelihood of changing the country’s political structure at this moment in time is similar to the likelihood of Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being implemented.

But incidentally, when Lebanese ministers were asked about this French initiative on Thursday, none of them knew what Macron was talking about.

If a political revolution does take place in Lebanon as a result of the horrific disaster it has suffered, it won’t be due to outside intervention. Rather, it will emerge from the destroyed streets, the protest movements, the poor who comprise around half the country’s population, and the middle class – or, more accurately, the former middle class that is gradually descending into poverty.

The Lebanese government knows quite well that it must provide the public with a guilty party or parties promptly if it wants to survive. A cabinet reshuffle is the usual response at times of crisis; the government’s campaign to save itself will also include putting a few senior officials on trial. But these steps won’t be enough to provide Lebanon with an oxygen line through which billions of dollars needed to rehabilitate the economy will flow.

Meanwhile, Lebanon is waiting tensely for the verdict of the special international court set up on the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Four Hezbollah members (though one was killed in 2016) have been charged with carrying out the bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people, wounding hundreds. Hezbollah warned the court “not to play with fire” and refused to hand over the accused.

The verdict was supposed to be handed down on Friday, but the court postponed it until August 18 due to the explosion in Beirut’s port. If the court declares the defendants guilty, it could have an enormous impact and increase the country’s anger and frustration, which are already on the verge of exploding.

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