In February 2020, I interviewed a family who had to sell their furniture to pay rent and buy groceries. An elderly woman in the Beirut suburb of Nabaa showed us her almost barren flat in the already worn-out neighborhood. With no viable public health system and a social security program as brittle as her bones, she relied on a local social worker for whatever support she could get. Despite having a bad back, she would try her luck at a dumpster near a highway to see if she could find any metal cans to sell for spare change. This was before the COVID-19 pandemic further paralyzed economically devastated Lebanon, and before the Beirut port explosion destroyed much of the capital city on Aug. 4.
The evening of the explosion, the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Achrafieh suffered mild damage compared to three other hospitals in the vicinity that were put out of commission, but it had to take in 700 patients in just two hours. Lobby counters, desk chairs, and just about any corner workers could find in the building were turned into makeshift operating theaters. The blood stains might have been cleaned off the floor the following morning, but the hospital was hauntingly quiet. Suddenly, an anxious father turned frantic when he wasn’t permitted to see his son at the intensive care unit. “My son is dying!” he screamed while trying to push through doctors and nurses.
The explosion also left 300,000 homeless, and many did not have the money – or the furniture to sell – to rebuild their homes. Surprising? Not really: At least 55% of the population lived in poverty in the months preceding the disaster.
Non-governmental organizations surveyed homes and helped some households, while the Lebanese army tried to assess the damage. Broken windows, doors blasted off their hinges, collapsed ceilings – just about everything was documented. Of course, there was no meaningful follow-up or implementation.
The Lebanese army had cordoned off what was left of the Beirut port and nonchalantly observed volunteers and NGOs cleaning up destroyed gentrified Beirut neighborhoods that once disharmoniously incorporated both families and their generations-old businesses and newer establishments. Outside the port was Elie Hasrouti, pleading to know what happened to his father, a port worker who had gone missing due to the explosion. The army and state stonewalled him. Fourteen days later, his father was pronounced dead.
Two months later, no meaningful state support is in sight, and there is no transparency on how nonstop shipments of humanitarian aid and a pledged quarter-billion-euro aid package are being used.
Many people were baffled when President Michel Aoun recently said at a press conference that Lebanon could be on its way to hell. I, too, was baffled. How can we be on our way to hell if we had already arrived months ago?
Lebanon’s economic collapse continues to be assessed through a narrow lens. This isn’t simply a matter of fixing numbers on a spreadsheet, providing humanitarian assistance, or having academic conversations about national identities and mythical birds. All these conversations ignore that the existing system is broken beyond repair.
This semi-democratic country functions with sectarian quotas in all forms of government and state institutions, with its president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament reserved for a Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite Muslim, respectively. This sectarian power-sharing system dominated by the country’s diverse oligarchs – sectarian warlords and business magnates – also extends into the economic system. Public money is routinely squandered, with excessive spending over the years on unnecessary employment, motivated by sectarian politics, and far too little spending on social services. If you can’t afford private alternatives, you can, ironically, rely on the ruling political parties’ patronage networks to afford healthcare and education. These networks even sent teams in branded suits to sanitize buildings and streets during the COVID-19 lockdown. All they ask in return for these services is political loyalty.
The International Support Group for Lebanon, which alongside the United Nations includes the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and European states, has routinely urged the Lebanese government to enact sweeping economic reforms for over a year. Following the Beirut port explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lebanon twice within the span of a month to further pressure the Lebanese government to enact such changes, conditioning aid with reforms and even threatening sanctions.
The Lebanese oligarchy hasn’t budged, just as it didn’t when financial panic began to simmer in 2019 even though then-Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri admitted things were looking grim. When asked about the emergency the country was in, al-Hariri’s answer gave an accurate, albeit bleak, foreshadowing of the future:
“Our strategy is to stabilize the problem that we have,” he said. “Most important thing is not to deteriorate more, right?”
Let us be clear, here. The Beirut port explosion and the country’s economic demise are products of the ruling oligarchy’s own making.
The economic crisis was the result of an unsustainable system birthed at the end of the country’s brutal 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Lebanon desperately needed financial investment to rebuild itself and become prosperous. However, this task of rebuilding did not include the creation of strong, state-run social institutions, and productive economic sectors like industry and agriculture were ignored. For example, the country’s agriculture sector went into freefall with virtually no support, while much of the country’s post-war reconstruction money was invested in the service sector to turn the country into the regional center for real estate, banking, and tourism.
Today, Lebanon relies on imports for just about everything, including most of its food. About 75% of those imports came through the now-destroyed Port of Beirut. Prices of food items have spiked so much over the past year that grocery stores are struggling to get them on their shelves. Setting aside sensationalist headlines claiming that the country is facing a famine, there is indeed a food security crisis in the country. An aid worker recently told me that among people requesting food assistance in increasing numbers are those with full-time employment.
If you think that is bad, wait until you hear about the country’s banking Ponzi scheme that devalued the local currency by 80% in less than a year.
The same mix of corruption and fecklessness is apparent in the port explosion. This was not some covert military operation; it was 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that was left in Lebanon’s main port for over half a decade. Though developments related to the investigation have not been shared with the public, journalistic investigations have revealed dozens of back-and-forth communications between port and customs officials, judicial authorities, security agencies, and political leadership on the matter. The possible reasons as to why no swift action was taken on the explosive chemical compound are endless: incompetence, a dizzying bureaucracy, nefarious profiteering. Whatever the exact reason was, the Beirut explosion is a microcosm of Lebanon’s corruption and the opaque system that has allowed the oligarchy to thrive for decades.
While talks of economic and fiscal reforms (“painful” or otherwise) are obviously crucial to tackle this broken system, the past year has shown that transformative accountability mechanisms need to be higher up on the agenda. After all, how do you tackle corruption, profiteering, exploitation of resources, human rights abuses (and a port explosion, for that matter) without proper accountability? In the international effort for reform in Lebanon, transparency, anti-corruption, and other accountability mechanisms are reduced to mere footnotes in the overall scheme of things.
The good news is that Lebanon isn’t necessarily starting at zero with some of these accountability measures, but there is much to be done.
Lebanon passed the Access to Information Law in 2017, which, in theory, allows someone to receive information from most public-sector institutions. There has been some pressure from local organizations like the Gherbal Initiative to make sure the law is consistently implemented, and it truly could be a game-changer in Lebanon’s uphill battle toward transparency.
As a journalist, I regularly send requests for access to information, though it has been a hit-and-miss experience so far.
While some institutions will respond as per the law with the requested information, others still refuse. A senior representative from one state institution even called to ask if I could tell them what the article was about, why I want this information as a journalist, and if they could give me “guidance” on the matter. Another time, a security official sent me photos of a document with statistics via WhatsApp.
In addition, Lebanon passed but hasn’t properly implemented a whistleblower protection law to expose public sector corruption. What better time than now, with the Beirut port explosion investigation underway? The procedure has been confidential so far, with almost all the updates available to the public revealed through journalistic investigations and leaks from insiders and media personalities. One journalist, Radwan Mortada, was summoned to an investigation by the security apparatus for sharing information related to the port explosion probe.
Of course, all these accountability mechanisms and laws need to be extended to the private sector, too, which plays a significant role in the economy and has been contracted by the state to do much of its work.
The judiciary needs an overhaul, too, given that it is not independent and is financially tied to the Justice Ministry. How can a thorough investigation into the Beirut blast and into public funds mismanagement and corruption take place without one? A draft law currently lingers in parliament, pushed by civil society organizations; it’s unclear to what extent the government will dilute its final version, though.
This is where things get awkward. Would Lebanon’s ruling oligarchy commit to and implement effective anti-corruption, transparency, and other accountability mechanisms? Doing so would jeopardize the oligarchs’ own self-enrichment and social standing, but it would be a huge concession for Lebanon’s angry population and the frustrated international community.
So, how is Lebanon going to get out of hell? Only with accountability, transparency, and justice – difficult attainments for any country in normal circumstances, much less a ravaged Middle Eastern kleptocracy beholden to sectarian interests and reeling from a global pandemic. Whether or not the international community is invested in these measures at all as part of Lebanon’s reform strategy is unclear, but it’s simply impossible to make Lebanon viable again without them.
The elderly woman in Nabaa selling her furniture to get by is one member of 55% of the population living in poverty, and Elie Hasourti is one of thousands whose loved ones were wounded, traumatized, or killed by the explosion. Hundreds of thousands, about one-third of whom are children, rendered homeless had to scrape by with whatever they could salvage to try to rebuild their homes.
Even with the most astounding economic recovery plan on paper, the country cannot be viable without an independent judiciary and ardent accountability and transparency mechanisms. But achieving this is virtually impossible without a significant overhaul in the country’s framework. After all, this is a ruling class that hasn’t made any changes after rendering more than half its national population poor in less than a year and shrugged off the devastating Beirut port explosion. Lebanon’s crisis is not just a crisis of cash; it’s existential.