Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 7 and updated on August 13 to reflect recent developments.
A massive explosion ripped through the Port of Beirut on August 4, sending shockwaves through the Lebanese capital, killing approximately 200, injuring thousands, and leaving upwards of 300,000 homeless. This comes with Lebanon already on the brink of economic collapse, struggling to address a COVID outbreak, and as the trust gap between citizens and the state is wider than ever. Although in the immediate aftermath of the explosion some suggested Lebanon had been attacked, the cause of the explosion is likely much more banal: government negligence resulted in thousands of pounds of explosive chemical material to be improperly stored in the port for years. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Mona Yacoubian examine what this means for Lebanon’s beleaguered political system, the long-term implications for the country, and how the international community has responded so far.
Conspiracy theories have flourished about the incident. What do we know about what really happened and what does it say about the Lebanese government?
Abouaoun: There are no new elements in regards to the cause of the blast. Most indicators continue to lead to the conclusion that the blast was an accident rather than resulting from an attack. At least two senior officials—the director of the Port Authority and the general director of the Customs Department—were arrested for further investigation, and another senior security official was also interrogated.
However, the investigation did not generate any new information that would change the assumption that the blast is not the result of an attack. Recent video clips show the following sequence: a fire generating black smoke, then a first blast generating a blazing fireball, followed by the mega-blast—potentially the ammonium nitrate. No clear explanation has been given so far about the first fire and the first blast. It remains essential to push for an impartial, transparent, and timely investigation into the explosion with international oversight.
With Lebanon already facing existential political and economic crises, what could the long-term impact of the explosion be?
Yacoubian: As the magnitude of the August 4 Beirut explosions sets in—with a death toll estimated at more than 200, more than 5,000 injured, hundreds of thousands now homeless, and billions of dollars in damage—the explosions’ aftermath could be even more significant. In the wake of mounting popular anger, the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned on August 10. The parliament subsequently formalized a two-week state of emergency that was declared by the president last week, ceding broad powers to the military. Human rights groups—already critical of security force tactics to quell demonstrations, including the use of rubber bullets—are raising concerns of a broader silencing of dissent.
Negotiations among Lebanon’s power brokers for the formation of a new government could take time. Three potential scenarios could unfold: (1) The formation of a truly independent government devoid of affiliation with traditional sectarian leaders; (2) A return to business as usual with yet another prime minister, potentially former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, forming a consensus cabinet that is acceptable to all the ruling oligarchs; or (3) A lengthy political vacuum, with no new prime minister selected and the caretaker government remaining at the helm, although limited by its status from undertaking any key reforms.
Coming amid a new COVID-19 surge and the Lebanese economy’s meltdown, the fallout from the catastrophic blasts will exacerbate an already dire situation characterized by growing hunger and impoverishment. The blasts damaged at least four hospitals, raising questions about the Lebanese health sector’s ability to cope with a spike in COVID-19 cases, which hit a record high this week.
Many Lebanese are accusing their government of gross negligence. Government officials reportedly ignored repeated warnings of the dangers inherent in poorly securing volatile chemicals at the strategic port. Not surprisingly, anger is growing among ordinary Lebanese who view the explosions through the prism of years of government corruption and incompetence. Many point to the blasts as the most dramatic and destructive legacy of decades of cronyism embedded in Lebanon’s sectarian system of government. Some indicators suggest the explosions could catalyze rejuvenated popular demands for change. Protests demanding the Lebanese system’s overthrow have resumed across the city. When the Lebanese justice minister visited a hard-hit neighborhood, she was met with demands for her resignation.
How has the international community responded?
Yacoubian: In his visit to Beirut last Thursday, French President Macron echoed the demands for change, pledging France’s support for Lebanon—but only if accompanied by deep reforms. An August 9 international donors’ conference spearheaded by France and the United Nations resulted in nearly $300 million in assistance pledges. Signaling the international community’s lack of trust in the Lebanese government, participating leaders called for the assistance to be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population, with utmost efficiency and transparency.” The U.S. Embassy in Beirut announced that the United States would provide $17 million in emergency assistance including food and medical supplies. Numerous other countries including Britain, Canada, Turkey, and Qatar are providing humanitarian assistance. Israel has also offered aid to Lebanon. Macron is slated to return to Lebanon in early September to gauge progress on post-explosion recovery.
Abouaoun: The final amount resulting from the French-convened international conference did not match expectations, mostly because of the lack of trust in the Lebanese political establishment. This lack of trust is twofold: On one hand it has to do with the discomfort—or even caution—with giving money that actors such a Hezbollah can access in one way or another. The second challenge is the quasi-certainty that the resources will be mismanaged or wasted given the incompetent bureaucracy and corrupt administration.
It is very telling that, at a time when these political parties lost domestic legitimacy—cumulatively in the last few years but more specifically since October 2019—the recent conference and statements by Lebanon’s international partners reflect an almost compete loss of trust across the political board.
However, there seems to be a strong international assumption that a political vacuum or security deterioration will benefit Hezbollah; hence the international efforts to push for a legitimate government in order to avoid a protracted institutional void.
Ideally, the Lebanese power brokers should be pressured to accept a nonpartisan government with highly credible figures enjoying limited legislative powers to manage the aftermath of the explosion and lead the current transition with the main aim of organizing snap elections—based on a reformed electoral law—in less than a year’s time. In the meantime, this same government should be able to take some basic measures to improve the banking situation and allow gradual access to people’s bank accounts while negotiating a comprehensive assistance package with the IMF.