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The Beirut Blast: An Accident in Name Only
The Beirut Blast: An Accident in Name Only
Protesters congregating at Riyadh Solh Square in Downtown Beirut on 20 October 2019, asking for the resignation of the government and to bring down the ruling political elite. CRISISGROUP/Heiko Wimmen

Lebanon’s Revolt

Austerity measures have triggered countrywide unrest in Lebanon. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Heiko Wimmen says the prime minister’s emergency measures may be too little, too late. Most protesters appear bent on the government’s resignation if not the political system‘s complete overhaul.

What are the drivers of Lebanon’s mass unrest?

Lebanese have suffered for years from failing public services and state negligence, most visibly dismal electricity supply, massive pollution and the breakdown of garbage disposal, all apparently connected to deeply engrained clientelism and graft. Political polarisation has compounded the problem by repeatedly paralysing government institutions. The cost of living has ballooned, salaries have stagnated and unemployment rates have risen, prompting a significant proportion of the country’s well-educated youth to emigrate. A planned tax on free phone calls over popular social media applications, announced on 17 October along with other austerity measures, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Immediately before it announced the new taxes, the state put the failure of its institutions on display when firefighters were unable to control raging bush and forest fires. Their equipment had not been maintained and was unusable. On the evening of 17 October, groups of youths – apparently coordinating among each other over spontaneously formed networks on social media – took to the streets and closed major intersections in and around Beirut with burning tires. On 18 October, the phenomenon spread to other areas, bringing most of the country to a standstill. 

The current protests are so far free of sectarian undertones and have been marked by expressions of solidarity between localities and communities

What is new about these protests? How do they relate to other recent protests in the region, for instance in Iraq?

Lebanon has seen recurrent waves of mostly youth-led mass protest since 2005, when the so-called Beirut spring forced the departure of Syrian troops that had occupied the country for nearly 30 years. In the past, the country’s traditional leaders have typically co-opted the movements to draw the youth into their respective political camps. Sometimes these leaders have even initiated the movements. The leaders present themselves as the defenders of the numerous sectarian communities around which the Lebanese political system has been built since 1923. 

The current protests, however, are so far free of sectarian undertones. In fact, protests have been marked by expressions of solidarity between localities and communities supposedly on opposite sides of the country’s political/sectarian divides. Protesters have voiced rejection of the ruling political elites of all sects, often, explicitly, their own. This rejection of incumbent leaders viewed as inept and corrupt is something the Lebanese protests share with the wave of demonstrations that engulfed Iraq earlier this month. Both countries have experienced rending sectarian conflict, and while in Iraq the scars are still fresh, protests there, as in other parts of the region, now also focus on the increasing alienation of people – underemployed youth, in particular – from political leaders and systems that seem unable to promise them a better future.

How serious is the economic and fiscal crisis?

Lebanese governments have for years relied on deficit spending and borrowing, with the budget deficit peaking at 11.5 per cent of GDP in 2018, running what some have called a state-sponsored “pyramid scheme”. Much of Lebanon’s public debt is held by the country’s private commercial banks; many of those banks are, in turn, owned by the country’s politicians and their relatives. Public debt now exceeds 150 per cent of GDP and debt service consumes around 50 per cent of state revenues. Major rating agencies have graded Lebanese sovereign bonds as “junk”, ie, coming with a serious risk of default, driving the interest rates the state must pay to attract fresh money up to 15 per cent. These high interest rates suck liquidity out of the economy and stifle incentive to invest in businesses that could create economic growth (which turned negative this year) or gainful employment. Shortly before the protests, an acute shortage of U.S. dollars threatened to disrupt supplies of imported gasoline, medicine and food, and suggested that devaluation of the local currency could be imminent – and with it, a significant loss of income for lower social strata in particular.

How have political parties reacted to the protests? And the security forces?

Even as protesters curse the country’s political parties, those same parties claim to support the protests. But protesters are not fooled: attempts by parties and leaders to assume an active role by calling on their supporters to join or even lead the movement in areas they dominate have largely fallen flat. In some areas of the south, armed thugs allegedly affiliated with the Shiite Amal Movement led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri attacked protesters and attempted to clear blocked roads by force on 19 and 20 October. These gunmen were apparently subsequently withdrawn, and the movement distanced itself from “undisciplined elements”. 

On the evening of 18 October, an escalation appeared possible. Protesters vandalised businesses in downtown Beirut and security forces used tear gas and water cannons to clear Riyadh Solh Square, a centre of protest in the immediate vicinity of parliament and the government palace. According to a General Security statement, 52 members of the security forces sustained mostly light injuries that evening and the authorities arrested 70 protesters. But the escalation seems to have been averted for now: on 19 October, increasingly massive throngs congregated in downtown Beirut, including a growing number of families; security forces adopted a conciliatory posture; and crowds quickly surrounded and dissuaded protesters who displayed aggressive attitudes. On 20 October, the demonstrations took on the air of a national celebration, with no violence recorded. 

At least four casualties have been reported since the start of the protests; two were related to confrontations and accidents around roadblocks, while two Syrian workers died in a building accidentally set on fire the first night.

These mostly technical solutions appear inadequate to the challenge of the protests, which now demand broader, systemic change

Where do we go from here? Will the government resign?

So far, only the Christian Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea have withdrawn their four ministers from the national unity government, citing a “lack of will to reform”. (The cabinet has 30 ministers in total.) The Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) headed by Foreign Minister Jibran Bassil and the Shiite movement Hizbollah led by Hassan Nasrallah want to carry on. They argue that immediate emergency measures are required to stave off a financial meltdown. Forming a new government or holding early elections is unlikely to bring significant change, they say, and will instead waste time Lebanon does not have. In his 18 October address, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni Future Movement, gave himself a 72-hour grace period to sound out his partners in government and work toward consensus on an emergency action plan – asking the Lebanese people, implicitly, to wait at least that long. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who initially pushed for the government’s resignation, backpedalled in the meantime and expressed support for such an emergency plan. 

While genuine concern for the country’s stability may motivate these politicians, larger strategic, as well as narrow political, interests are also at stake. Both Geagea and Jumblatt have long opposed the dominant Hizbollah-FPM-Future alliance, as they reject Lebanon’s implicit alignment with Iran that flows from Hizbollah’s dominant role. Both nonetheless accepted to serve in the national unity government to preserve some political influence, but Geagea loathes the FPM’s competition in the Christian community, and Jumblatt has seen his position undermined by Druze rivals allegedly propped up by Hizbollah. The FPM, at this point, has achieved the largest representation in government ever and stands to lose from any change; party leader Bassil is capitalising on this position of strength to position himself to inherit the presidency from his father-in-law, party founder Michel Aoun, whose term expires in 2022. Hizbollah is in the comfortable position of wielding large influence in a government that represents nearly all the country’s political currents, thus partly shielding Lebanon from international pressures and, potentially, U.S. sanctions that could target a government it would form with loyal allies alone. Finally, Prime Minister Hariri found his position among Sunnis eroded in the last elections; retaining government positions that protect his constituents’ interests and taking charge of economic recovery is his best bet for holding on to his claim to leadership.

So is there a solution to the crisis?

Some six weeks ago, on 2 September, all the relevant political parties agreed on an economic action plan known as the Baabda paper. The economic plan seems to tick all the right boxes, initiating the reform measures demanded by international donors and institutions to unlock $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged at the CEDRE donor conference in Paris in April 2018. Yet it remains vague on implementation. Differences about how and at whose expense budget cuts would be executed and additional revenue raised have stalled budget negotiations and may have led the government to see the new taxes and cuts to salaries and pensions as the easiest way out, prompting the current uproar. 

After announcing his 72-hour grace period, Prime Minister Hariri undertook intense deliberations with relevant political forces, leading up to a cabinet session on 21 October. In the afternoon of the same day, the prime minister announced that the 2020 budget would bring down the deficit to 0.6 per cent of GDP, provide $160 million for subsidised housing loans and $16 million in assistance to underprivileged families, and forge ahead with new power plants, all without raising taxes on average Lebanese. To finance these steps, two special government funds (for the south and the civil war displaced) widely seen as vehicles for clientelism would see their budgets slashed by 70 per cent, the salaries of ministers and members of parliament would be cut in half, and unnecessary spending would be ended. 

Most significantly, Lebanese banks are supposed to contribute $3.4 billion to resolving the crisis. This contribution may take the form of taxes on bank profits and interest payments, or a restructuring of public debt, which is mostly held by local Lebanese banks. In other words, the Lebanese banking sector, which has realised solid profits by financing deficit spending for nearly three decades, will be asked to contribute to a bailout to avoid the much larger losses it would incur if the state were to default on its obligations.

Will this be enough to mollify the people in the streets?

These mostly technical solutions may put the country on a sounder fiscal footing, but they appear inadequate to the challenge of the protests, which now demand broader, systemic change. Hariri’s statement on Monday afternoon met largely with rejection in the streets; the overwhelming sentiment appears to be to throw out the political elite as a whole. Numerous manifestoes of demands are circulating, which appear to converge on the government’s immediate resignation in favour of a new one that would be independent of the political parties. That new government would then address the economic crisis and perhaps prepare for new elections. 

If this mood prevails and protests continue at the current pace and scale, the country may be in for a prolonged period of unrest. No alternative political leadership or real opposition to the ruling parties exists. Earlier rounds of spontaneous movements, such as the 2015 protests against the collapse of garbage collection under the label “You Stink”, have spawned attempts to form anti-establishment platforms that achieved minor successes in recent municipal and national elections. Yet it is unclear if these groups are ready to participate meaningfully in political change, let alone shape a radical reform of political institutions. If sizeable numbers of protesters stay in the streets and continue to block circulation, businesses and public institutions that have been on lockdown since 18 October will remain paralysed. Attempts to restore order, for instance by deploying the army, may lead to another flare-up of violence.

Correction on 22 October: an earlier version of this Q&A referred to Prime Minister Hariri's televised speech taking place on 19 October. It was on 18 October.

A view of the port the day after a massive explosion at the port on August 5, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Houssam Hariri / NurPhoto via AFP

The Beirut Blast: An Accident in Name Only

The catastrophic explosion in Beirut’s port is a manifestation of the Lebanese political elite’s predation and dysfunction. Among the country’s long-suffering citizens, shock is quickly yielding to fury. It may be the last chance for those in power to effect long-overdue structural reforms.

From all we know, the blast that destroyed much of the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut in the early evening of 4 August was an accident – but if so, it was an accident only in name. Storing, against repeated warnings, more than 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate for nearly seven years under unsuitable conditions near a densely populated area amounted to asking for a catastrophe to happen. Blatant, perhaps criminal, negligence and bureaucratic ineptitude were the immediate causes of the explosion that killed over 150, injured more than 5,000, displaced up to 300,000 and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage to the city – and counting.

The disaster is only the latest, if most dramatic and devastating, manifestation of the dysfunction that has marked the Lebanese state for three decades.

In that sense, the disaster is only the latest, if most dramatic and devastating, manifestation of the dysfunction that has marked the Lebanese state for three decades. It is the product of a predatory political elite that has held state institutions in its grip and sucked them dry while allowing public services for ordinary citizens to break down to the point of non-existence. The networks of political influence, patronage and corruption they have built have compromised accountability, due process and professional conduct on all levels. Their behaviour has pushed Lebanon over the brink of bankruptcy and beggared much of the population. The headline in The Daily Star, a local newspaper, captured the bottom line particularly well: “Lebanon’s officials are its worst enemies”. Unless these political elites finally accede to the demands for fundamental reform, Lebanon will slide further into economic abyss, and public outrage may well lead to unrest and violence.

The blast will accelerate the Lebanese economy’s tailspin, immiserating a larger and larger part of the 6.8 million-strong population, one in five of whom are Syrian refugees. The Lebanese lira has lost more than 80 percent of its value since October, impoverishing citizens who now struggle to afford basic goods, which are mostly imported. Banks have largely refused to dispense their customers’ savings, as they grapple with their own apparent insolvency. On 6 August, the Lebanese Central Bank announced support for businesses and individuals seeking to repair damage, yet experts remain sceptical that the institution can squeeze enough dollars out of its shrinking foreign reserves to make a real difference. The liquidity crisis, loss of credit and resulting collapse of local demand, which was then deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic, has forced businesses to scale back operations or shut down entirely, shedding or furloughing tens of thousands of employees. State-provided electricity has dwindled to just a few hours per day, as fuel has become scarce.

Lebanese politicians have responded to the country’s political-economic crisis with characteristic lack of seriousness, arguing among themselves over the scale of losses at Lebanon’s politically connected banks, and who should make them whole. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over an economic rescue package have deadlocked as a result.

Now Lebanon’s national crisis has been made much worse. With Beirut’s port incapacitated, and smaller facilities along the Lebanese coast likely unable to take much of the load, bringing in sufficient supplies of food and medicine will be a challenge. The blast also destroyed the main grain storage silos and stocks of medical equipment. Enterprises that have weathered the crisis thus far will find it even more difficult to import equipment and materials to keep business going or to export their products. State tax and customs revenue will plummet further, forcing the government to fund its budget through the printing press and thus initiating a new round of hyperinflation.

Even before the latest disaster Lebanon was in need of humanitarian assistance. Now the need has become acute, and the volume of required aid, in particular medical staff and supplies, food to replenish destroyed stocks and building material to fix damaged shelters, has only grown. Thankfully, a number of countries across the Middle East and in Europe are already pitching in. They will have to do more, as the effects of the Beirut port’s destruction and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese set in, compounding the country’s misery. They should provide assistance directly to the affected population and through local and international non-governmental organisations present on the ground.

Lebanon’s political leadership may still have a chance to do the right thing and institute long-overdue reforms.

Lebanon’s political leadership may still have a chance to do the right thing and institute long-overdue reforms, as the Lebanese people have demanded, and on which international donors have conditioned an economic rescue. The corrupt political arrangements that have bankrupted the country and that led ultimately to the 4 August disaster cannot be allowed to continue; they have reached their end. They will not be revived by some miraculous injection of foreign money.

Two months ago, Crisis Group published a report on how to pull Lebanon out of the pit. We emphasised that the political elite that has ruled Lebanon for the past 30 years must carry out structural reforms that prevent corrupt and self-serving cliques from appropriating state resources and public goods in order to win the substantial international support the country needs to emerge from the economic crisis.

Now those elites are again facing the wrath of the country’s citizens, as they did in October 2019, when hundreds of thousands rallied against the politicians in charge. Those protests followed another humiliating episode in which the government was helpless to control wildfires after neglecting for years to pay for maintenance of donated firefighting helicopters.

The latest disaster is a similar failure, but on a monumental, much deadlier scale. It seems likely to unleash a new wave of popular fury. Lebanese are seething on social media. Activist groups that played a prominent role in the October protest movement are starting to mobilise again, raising their popular slogan demanding the removal of the country’s entrenched elites: “‘All of them’ means ‘all of them’”. Already in April and May, sporadic protests against deteriorating living conditions had sparked violent confrontations with the security forces, causing casualties. New demonstrations could spin out of control completely. A major protest has been called for 8 August.

If the Lebanese elites do have a chance to fix what they have broken, it may well be their last. They, along with the politicians whom they elevated and the officials whom they helped appoint, will have to face up to a Lebanese public that, after so many years of abuse and neglect, has now been terrorised by its own government with an entirely preventable explosion of world-historical size and destructive power. The public is justifiably enraged, and it has less and less to lose.