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Why Lebanon Is Beyond Saving

David Rosenberg
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Smoke rising from the August 4 explosion at Beirut Port
Smoke rising from the explosion at Beirut Port the day before, on August 4, 2020Credit: Hussein Malla,AP
David Rosenberg

It’s been a year since a massive explosion levelled Beirut Port, taking 200 lives and destroying thousands of homes and shops.

Most of the attention on the one-year anniversary has been focused on Lebanon’s failure to meaningfully investigate who was responsible for the disaster, much less take any action against them.

But what is no less scandalous is that 12 months have passed and the blast site remains a mass of rubble. The parts of the port – most critically its container terminal – survived the blast with limited damage, but they are operating but only partially.

If it weren’t for the fact that the economy has shrunk so much that Lebanon is importing much less than before (it didn’t export much before the crisis), the crippled port would be choking the country.

The wheat that was stored in the silos destroyed in the blast had been left to rot, until a French company paid with French government aid began the clean-up process three weeks ago. A host of foreign companies have offered to rebuild the port, but the government has yet to act. In the meantime, the chaotic management that existed before the explosion and probably contributed to it remains unreformed.

Explosion at the port, August 4, 2020Credit: YouTube

Najib Mikati's appointment as Lebanon’s prime minister-designate just over a week ago briefly sent the pound soaring amid expectations that the country had at last found its savior. Mikati, who had also served as prime minister of Lebanon in 2005 and from 2011 to 2014, injected a sobering note of realism into Lebanese politics by warning that he had no “magic wand” and vaguely spoke of “international guarantees,” hinting that he would unlock foreign assistance.

He also promised to form a new government before the port-explosion anniversary on Wednesday, presumably to symbolize the change he plans to bring after the country’s annus horribilis.

Anyhow, on Tuesday he admitted it wouldn’t happen due to squabbling over cabinet seats, sending the Lebanese pound crashing anew. 

I’m not sure why anyone thought that Mikati might do any better than his predecessors. He is a billionaire who faces charges over  corruption. Mikati is just another representative of the country’s corrupt and self-serving elite, a Tweedledum to his predecessor’s Tweedledee – Rafik Harari, another billionaire and former PM. Reform is contrary to their nature and business interests.

Twelve months on, the state of the Beirut Port and the fact that Lebanon’s politicians can’t trouble themselves to form a government, much less address Lebanon’s economic crisis, attest that the national leadership will seemingly tolerate any disaster so long as it can stay in power.

Even by global standards of corrupt and irresponsible governments, Lebanon is a standout.

If Lebanon had suffered a natural disaster, international aid would have come quickly (as indeed some did after the port explosion). If it were at war, the response would probably be more hesitant, but in theory there are mechanisms like UN peacekeepers or international coalition of troops that can be dispatched. Often these mechanisms fail and fail miserably, but in the face of human suffering on a mass scale, the world at least tries to impose a solution.

Debris from the Aug. 4, 2020 explosion at the seaport of BeirutCredit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

Unfortunately, just economic catastrophe

It’s Lebanon’s misfortune that its disaster is purely economic and entirely the consequence of its venal and corrupt leadership. As a result, the suffering of ordinary Lebanese is less apparent than if they were coping with an earthquake or a tsunami or urban warfare. But a collapsing economy causes very real suffering, too, albeit not the kind that offers good visuals.

How much suffering is anyone’s guess. On top of the economic crisis, COVID has taken a heavy toll on human life and health. However, it is self-evident that hyperinflation and a lack of dollars to pay for imports means that the majority of the country's six million people struggle to find food, medicine, fuel, electricity and clean water. A recent United Nations survey estimated that 77% of households do not have enough food, or money to buy food. Lebanese are getting sick and dying as a consequence.

Whether it's the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the public sector or private financial institutions, international institutions normally have some influence over mismanaged economies and dysfunctional governments because they can offer bailout money.

But it seems Lebanon's political class can't be tempted, even by $11 billion in soft loans and grants that have been promised, if only they agree to undertake reforms the country needs to climb out of its hole. The help has been an offer for three years and Lebanon refuses to even make the motions of getting the reform process started.

There's a big hole in the international system. When a country collapses economically, and Lebanon’s collapse is one of the world’s biggest for a country not at war, it causes its own kind of suffering, but all the world can do is sit by and offer advice.

International cajoling, mass street protests, economic collapse, a deadly COVID pandemic and the port explosion have all failed to budge Lebanon’s leaders. Maybe the economic equivalent of a UN peacekeeping force – a cadre of economists and accountants – should be created to take charge of places like Lebanon. It seems crazy, but it seems all the other solutions have been exhausted.

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