Sarah Moritz is a Canadian writer based in Beirut.
I moved to Lebanon in March, 2019, to pursue my graduate degree, which means I have experienced the thawra (revolution), economic crisis, COVID-19 and now the explosion, which has torn apart my home of Beirut. Through this I have learned to understand the magnitude of the resilience of the people in Lebanon, and why it is an attribute that has rightfully served as a point of pride. There is a reason why Beirut’s favoured symbol is the Phoenix – something that dies and is reborn, rising in its beautiful splendour again, from its own ashes. This power is made much more astounding, though, when you realize the resilience is a result of a population living under a regime that seems to do everything it can not just to stymie progress, but to prevent comfortable basic existence. The care those in Lebanon have for one another is genuine, but it is also necessary for survival – because it is understood by many that it is better to support and help one another, than to rely on the government for anything.
I witnessed this during the revolution, which is still continuing and has now been fired up by the indescribable fury triggered by the explosion. People take care of one another in person and virtually, organizing and providing everything from medical aid, food and protective gear, to mental-health support. After the explosion, self-initiated mobilization from local businesses and civilian groups, such as Muwatin Lebnene and Rebuild Beirut, involves taking surveys regarding the needs of individuals and families, and providing support in the form of first aid units, relief funding, equipment for anyone who wants to help clean destroyed streets, homes and local businesses, and generally connecting affected individuals with those who can help. This is while the government has not only done nothing to help clean and rebuild or offer services to their people, but has in some cases refused to release the bodies of those who died in the explosion to their families until the fines held by the deceased, such as unpaid traffic tickets, have been paid.
When it comes to postexplosion realities beyond the governments astounding historical and current disregard for their own people, I could talk about the dire situation with regards to poverty prior to the explosion, and how the explosion has exacerbated these realities. I could talk about what the loss of the grain silos and damage to the port, coupled with a government-imposed dependence on imports, means for the rapid growth of food insecurity in the economically devastated country with its hyper-inflated currency. I could talk about the garbage crisis that has been continuing unaddressed for years, which the rubble from the destruction will increase, or about how the general lack of electricity will now only get worse with the destruction of the country’s primary electricity provider. But they are related to an overarching and grave reality. Whether the ammonium nitrate was set off on purpose or not, or by whom, is also not the focus here – it is the fact that not only did the political elite know about the massive quantities being stored, they did nothing to remove it, and have refused to take any responsibility for what happened. All of this can be boiled down to the severity of the corruption, and serves as a reflection of the astounding arrogance that has developed as a result of what the elite clearly see as their invincibility.
This is why I believe a postexplosion Lebanon must include very significant international engagement with the country’s corrupt government and banking systems. Without addressing what has gotten the country to the horrific place it now finds itself in, and without meaningful international help to disassemble the cascading, iron grip of the elite, a future that the people of this country deserves will not be possible. The newly appointed “technocratic” government and its new Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, resigned, but the long-term political heads who have been responsible for, and profiting from, the people’s degrading situation for decades still predictably refuse to budge. Governments everywhere must refuse to engage with the political elite (including bankers) domestically and abroad. They have to insist on the resignation of every Lebanese ambassador and other political representatives in their respective countries. The offshore accounts of the political elite must be frozen immediately. Their assets, such as their luxurious homes, need to be seized, and an independent investigation into the explosion at the port (or, as it is also called, the “Cave of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”) needs to be held.
The explosion is not just catastrophic, it was avoidable, and a terrifyingly accurate embodiment of how entrenched corruption is within the government and its clientelist networks that run (or run into the ground) every part of the country. This is not a case of “Middle Eastern exceptionalism” but is a result of a colonial-created system that has been enthusiastically carried by political elite, some of whom are warlords or war entrepreneurs. And the power structure has been left unchecked for decades, not because consociational sectarian systems successfully result in fair and effective long-term governance (studies and history show they don’t), but, perhaps, because the level of human suffering in Lebanon caused by it has not been enough to warrant pressure to change (a system, according to the 1989 Taif Agreement, that was supposed to be temporary).
It took one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history for the suffering of the people of Lebanon to get international attention, and, while the people in Lebanon are resilient, they have been making it clear since Aug. 4 that they are beyond exhausted of having to be. Since the explosion, the people have been manually cleaning up the city their own government destroyed, they have been rallying to feed those who need it and they are working to find shelter for the 300,000 who have been left homeless – by themselves. So just imagine what this country would be capable of if the people had a government that did not hold their feet down on the backs of their necks and force them to breathe under water.
It is my possibly idealistic hope that this catastrophic event will finally push the international community to force the elite from their seats and seek justice in courts that will punish them for the true criminals they are. And, as I write this, we wait for the parliamentary meeting on declaring a state of emergency, which, if it happens, will mean further oppression of anyone who speaks out against the corrupt regime. International interference that acts in the best long-term interest of the people is what is necessary to create the opportunity for a positive future the people of Lebanon deserve, and one, 2enshallah, the current generations will be alive to see.
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