Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo. She is a senior fellow at both the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C.
The mushroom-cloud explosion at Beirut’s port rocked the Lebanese capital and could be felt in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries hundreds of kilometres away. Well beyond the blast epicentre, flying glass from shattered windows and shards of building debris injured thousands of innocent people, many of them walking in Beirut’s streets in a short reprieve from the coronavirus-imposed lockdown. Others were simply sitting in their own homes. The literal and figurative scars will run deep, and the Lebanese people should rightfully blame the political leaders who have failed them – repeatedly.
As one of the most indebted countries in the world, for years Lebanon’s central bank has borrowed from commercial banks at exorbitant interest rates to fund a corrupt public purse. The loans have only seemed to benefit bankers who are entwined with the country’s corrupt political class.
The value of the Lebanese pound had been tumbling for months, as the country’s politicians have been unable to agree on what policy reforms to undertake in exchange for an urgent US$10-billion financial bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. Last October, when Lebanon’s politicians came up with the novel idea to tax WhatsApp voice calls, the people had had enough of their leaders’ incompetence and poured onto the streets, chanting “All of them means all of them!” That is, all of the politicians must go.
While business tycoons were allegedly able to withdraw from their bank accounts in the months after, average Lebanese people could not access their meagre and dwindling savings to pay for basic necessities. Meanwhile, prices for everything continued to skyrocket. Hyperinflation and a currency crisis have engulfed Lebanon in recent months, as foreign currency has become ever scarcer and the import-dependent country has become effectively bankrupt.
Lebanon prides itself on being resilient, especially after surviving a brutal 15-year civil war that tore communities apart along sectarian and geopolitical lines. But even before Tuesday’s explosion, the Lebanese people felt helpless and their future looked bleak. There was already mass unemployment, food insecurity and hunger, continuous electricity shortages, and a crumbling health care system hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The explosion at the Beirut port on Tuesday felt like the last nail in the coffin of a once-glamourous, fun-loving country.
To make matters worse, the port is a lifeline for food and necessary medical supplies; around 70 per cent of all imports coming into Lebanon pass through it. Adjacent to the port are Lebanon’s silos for the storage of wheat and grains, processing mills, and oil facilities – all now destroyed by the blast.
Highly explosive materials have reportedly been stored at the port since 2013, after being seized from a cargo ship. It was utterly incompetent for Lebanon’s port authorities and their political backers to leave highly explosive material adjacent to critical infrastructure. Sadly, the Lebanese people face this kind of governance failure all too often.
The physical destruction of this beautiful seaside city is vast. So many homes, businesses, and infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed. To the Lebanese people – many of whom lived through the senseless political violence of the civil war – Beirut looks like a war zone. The scale of destruction from the explosion will require significant reconstruction and there will be an urgent humanitarian need for basic foodstuffs and medical supplies. Neither the Lebanese government, nor its constituents, can manage or afford what’s required.
The international community has become more introverted, in part due to the coronavirus, but Lebanon will need substantive donor assistance. Millions of people in the Lebanese diaspora have contributed to building countries in the West, including Canada, following waves of immigration dating back to the late 19th century. There are now more Lebanese people living in the diaspora outside the country than within Lebanon itself.
The Canadian government can help in the immediate term by identifying effective ways to donate money directly to Lebanon’s non-governmental organizations, bypassing the corrupt government and dysfunctional banks. Our federal government can also assist by matching contributions from all Canadians, a tradition we have established in responding to other humanitarian crises – a “care mongering” trend that Canadians do best.
For the medium and long terms, Canada can continue to support the Lebanese Armed Forces, a professional and unifying force in a sectarian country. We can further invest in Lebanese civil society, and support the international donor community to get Lebanon out of its political and economic impasse.
Lebanon needs the world’s help to rebuild. More than ever, it is on the brink of becoming a failed state.