The horrific blast in Beirut at the beginning of August has sparked a wave of grief, and protest. Omar Hassan argues that it is the system itself which is most to blame.
The explosion took the lives of more than 150 people, wounded an estimated 5,000 more and left up to 300,000 homeless. The city, home to more than a third of Lebanon’s population, is physically and emotionally shattered.
This disaster was avoidable. Early investigations into the blast point to extraordinary and systematic negligence on the part of authorities. Nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were allowed to sit in the heart of the capital for more than six years.
Though the managers of the port where the chemical was stored are far from blameless, their repeated pleas for the material to be moved went unheeded by successive governments and multiple judges. All senior officials involved should be jailed for crimes against the people – for mass murder.
This tragedy comes at a time when the country is particularly vulnerable, dealing with runaway inflation, a sharp rise in unemployment and growing case numbers of COVID-19. Banks have refused all but the wealthy elite access to their savings, and the vast majority who earn wages in the collapsing lira have had their real incomes dramatically reduced.
In April, the World Bank estimated Lebanese unemployment at around 45 percent. That was before the worst of the hyperinflation set in and before the explosion took out large sections of Beirut’s economy.
It was immediately obvious to millions of Lebanese who was to blame for this latest calamity. On social media, outpourings of anger targeted the entrenched political class. Like politicians in the West, Lebanese leaders are far more interested in enriching themselves and their corporate friends than looking after the population who elect them.
On Twitter, the hashtag “prepare the nooses” went viral, alongside images depicting leaders of every major party. This response was primed by the country’s experience of a substantial protest wave last year, when tens of thousands took to the streets in what became known as the “October Revolution”.
Triggered by a spate of tax changes, including a tax on WhatsApp and other free messaging services, an enormous, anti-sectarian movement occupied public spaces for weeks, demanding an end to the regime. Though the lack of leadership and the absence of a well-organised left resulted in the movement receding, the movement transformed the consciousness of those who participated in or witnessed it.
The enormous protests in Beirut last weekend could mark the return of mass politics to Lebanese streets. Demonstrators packed Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut before occupying a number of government buildings. In a now famous image, activists dropped a banner from the occupied Foreign Ministry, declaring “Beirut the capital of the revolution”.
Much is made of Lebanon’s corrupt and incompetent government. And rightly so: the country’s system, structured around nepotistic deal-making between rival sectarian groups, encourages bribery and cynical alliances. But those who live in the West should harbour no illusions that our systems and leaders are much better.
It was sickening to see French President Emmanuel Macron strutting around Beirut promising that his country’s aid would bypass corrupt politicians. France is responsible for creating the Lebanese system in the first place, having employed sectarian divide and rule tactics to maintain its colonial occupation for as long as possible.
Worse, the money promised by Macron, the International Monetary Fund and other world leaders is dependent on the government giving international capital more opportunities to exploit Lebanon’s workers through the full privatisation of electricity and other basic services. This is not aid – this is vulture capitalism at its worst.
The imperial dynamic is worth watching. The preparedness of Western leaders to attack the Lebanese government reflects the prominent role of Islamist group Hezbollah within it. Hezbollah is a sectarian organisation deserving of criticism – along with every other Lebanese party.
But Macron and others such as US President Donald Trump are hypocrites. Their commitment to transparent governance is belied by their domestic policies, as well as their close relationship with President Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who is currently facing many charges of corruption, and has intensified his country’s illegal annexation of Palestinian land.
Under pressure from below, the Lebanese government has arrested a number of senior figures in the port authority. And a handful of politicians have resigned from the government and from parliament. Yet these moves will not address the root cause of the crisis, and the move to call new elections is a trap – the rigged Lebanese system precludes any possibility of a left-wing party winning the popular vote, even if one existed.
It is more important than ever that activists in Lebanon continue organising and demonstrating, all the while fighting to build left-wing and socialist organisations. The only solution to the country’s multiple crises is to bring down the rotten capitalist system that has proven itself incapable of meeting their basic human needs.