“Lebanon’s Chernobyl.” “Nuclear war.” “Beirut is gone.” These and other phrases that are heading reports of the horrific explosion Tuesday in Beirut cannot fully capture the extent of the devastation, anxiety, rage and despair.
People searching for their relatives among masses of concrete and iron, injured people waiting for long periods for ambulances, hospitals without medication or beds, doctors running between the injured and coronavirus patients, heartbreaking human stories about injured children and the elderly, businesses destroyed and a helpless government are all part of the story of the death blow that has struck the country, whose very existence now hangs on a thread.
The official figures, which are not final, speak of 135 killed and more than 5,000 injured. The number of missing is not known and it is clear the number of the dead will climb as rescue and recovery personnel continue their work. Arab countries have quickly begun to send medical help: Qatar and Kuwait sent field hospitals to Beirut, Jordan will put up a military hospital, Iraq is sending doctors and nurses. French President Emmanuel Macron is to arrive in Lebanon Thursday to assess the damage first hand and enlist additional countries to help.
The governor of the Beirut district, Marwan Abboud, said Wednesday that the damage is estimated at $10-15 billion, but that only relates to the immediate extent of destruction, not to the huge economic damage Lebanon will have to deal with in the immediate future.
The port of Beirut, the main gateway to the country where some 3,000 ships dock every year and through which 70 percent of Lebanon’s imports come, is shut down and a replacement will have to be found. The secondary port, at Tripoli, can’t match the volume of sea transport. The Beirut port’s huge granaries that normally store about 85 percent of all of Lebanon’s imported grain, were completely demolished, as were the customs storage facilities, the importers’ storage facilities, merchandise handling and moving equipment, cranes and management offices.
Such damage could mean that Lebanon might be facing a shortage of basic goods, another crisis on top of the deep economic straits the country is in. According to Beirut’s Mayor Jamal Itani, some 300,000 people have lost their homes completely or partially and shelter will have to be found for them either in or outside Beirut. Itani pledged to put 30 billion Lebanese pounds at the disposal of the victims, but according to the official exchange rate of 1,507 pounds to the dollar, this amounts to only about $20 million, and given the black market rate of 7,900 pounds to the dollar, the amount plunges to a paltry $3.8 million. This is not even enough money to transport the hundreds of thousands of homeless people to places to sleep, if and when such places are found.
The empty coffers of the government, whose “usual” budgetary deficit is about 11 percent and is now expected to skyrocket, were unsuccessful even before the explosion in meeting funding demands, which have continued to swell. The government decided back in March to postpone, for the first time, repayment of debts to financial institutions in the amount of $1.2 billion, as well as the two payments it was supposed to have made in April and June, of similar amounts. Without this postponement Lebanon would have gone bankrupt.
This month Lebanon was supposed to have paid about $100 million to the Turkish company Karadeniz, which operates power-plant ships that provide about 400 megawatts of electricity to Beirut and the Lebanon Mountains. By the end of next year, Lebanon was supposed to have paid about $800 million only for electricity, in addition to payments for the import of fuel to operate the thousands of generators that serve as alternatives for the electricity company, which cannot meet demand, and is itself in a huge long-term deficit.
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This is in addition to the billions that the government owed private hospitals, some of which have stopped taking in the injured, and for the failure to deal with landfill, an issue that led to a serious crisis in confidence in the government and huge protests five years ago, which threaten to break out again.
The government’s sources of financing, with debts estimated at over $90 billion, about 160 percent of Lebanon’s GDP, have run dry. The donor countries, which two years ago pledged some $11 billion, have been waiting for a stable government that could sign finance agreements. But even when a new government was established under Prime Minister Hassan Diab, the donor countries were in no hurry to help Lebanon, where Hezbollah is an inseparable part of the government, corruption is ingrained, transparency is a dirty word and oversight and enforcement are theoretical terms.
Even after the disaster, Lebanon can’t expect financial assistance to extricate it from the hole into which it has dug itself for decades, due to its method of government, which distributed state resources according to ethnic affiliation, mainly according to proximity to the heads of political parties. The emergency assistance it will receive from Arab countries and from the West is essential to resolve the severe immediate crisis.
But its extent, which is still unknown, will not be enough to restore Lebanon’s economy from the ground up. The result will be that Lebanon will be run from day to day, unable to build a long-term economic reform plan, with political leg irons weighing it down.
In the next two weeks the Lebanese army will run the Lebanese public sphere, following the presidential declaration of a state of emergency. Lebanese soldiers will impose a curfew, man roadblocks, guard the damaged port, arrest curfew-breakers and mainly prevent protests that are expected to erupt, bringing to the streets all the accumulated frustration of years, which have come to a head with the blast.
Articles and opinion pieces in all the Lebanese media outlets are already casting the full blame on the current Lebanese government and its predecessors. Sarcastic, enraged reports were filed about the emergency meeting of the National Defense Council on Tuesday. The only decision made by the council, whose members include the relevant government ministers, prime minister, president and heads of the security forces, was to establish a headquarters to deal with the crisis.
“How can it be that the head of customs, the man directly responsible for the storage facilities that exploded, appeared at the meeting and is not under investigation?” one of the articles asked. “Now they will certainly announce a state commission of inquiry whose findings no one can believe,” the article added.
But Lebanon, in shock and engulfed in national mourning, has already been through disasters and wars that almost led to its demise – the terrible civil war that raged for 15 years, the 18-year Israeli occupation, the Second Lebanon War that devastated the economic infrastructure and the war in Syria that went on for nine years and dealt a mortal blow to Lebanon’s economy. Lebanon survived all of these and most of the time stood up again, even if unsteadily. It must be expected that this same “Lebanese spirit” and this same Beirut to which the national singer Fairuz devoted one of her moving songs, will rise from the ashes once again.