My friend texts me on Tuesday evening: there’s been an explosion in Beirut, and I quickly look up the news to see what happened. I think immediately of a violent attack – a sectarian bomb, hitting the country already on its knees in economic collapse, seeking to take advantage of the corona-caused pause in the anti-sectarian revolution that began in October last year. And which outside actor would be behind this devastating violence in the heart of Beirut: Iran, Da’esh, Israel? Like many others I watched the images emerging from Beirut on Tuesday night with horror, as it quickly emerged that this was not a terrorist attack but a tragedy of mismanagement and the deepest willful neglect. My heart goes out to all those affected by this awful accident, to those who lost loved ones, who were injured or who have lost their homes. To call it an accident is perhaps inaccurate, as it appears that this could have been prevented, and so is the latest and most awful result of the abject political and moral collapse of the Lebanese elite, a collapse that the Lebanese people have been calling out for years, and most recently and vocally in the October 2019 revolution. One of the slogans of the revolution was ‘la thaqa’ (no trust), and this disaster is the devastating example of why the people lost their trust in the Lebanese political class.
As the horrifying details emerged – a huge cache of ammonium nitrate was left in a warehouse in the port in downtown Beirut for six years as warnings were systematically ignored by government bureaucracy – I thought of Grenfell Tower. Britain’s own tragedy of willful neglect and evidence of the political elite’s disregard for the lives of ordinary people – council towerblock was fitted out with substandard cladding that caused a fire in one flat to spread to the whole block. Bureaucratic neglect and greed led in this instance to abject tragedy as over 70 people died, the fire service telling people to stay in their homes, with the assumption that fire-retardant cladding would stop the spread of the blaze. This explosion in Beirut’s port is Lebanon’s Grenfell, and it comes at time where the situation in Lebanon couldn’t get much worse.
In a 2017 essay, Rosalie Berthier predicts the collapse that would emerge from the confidence tricks being pulled at the centre of the Lebanese economy. Her essay ends with an eerily accurate account of what has happened in Lebanon in the past year: hyper-inflation, currency devaluation and loss of people’s saving, and the concurrent outburst of collective anger at the giant theft of people’s livelihoods by a corrupt elite. Berthier details the so called ‘swap’ performed by the Lebanese banking sector in 2016, a act of financial wizardry not dissimilar to those practiced by Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and the rest in the early 2000s which helped tip the world economy into a recession that resulted in job losses and foreclosures that people are still recovering from. In order to attract dollar deposits, the Lebanese central bank sold Eurobonds of state debt for US dollars at high interest. Berthier writes: “the IMF guesstimates that participants made instant gains equivalent to $5 billion, while BdL pulled in $13 billion in fresh dollars. If these figures are correct, the banks involved made a whopping, 40% return on the overall transaction.” The net result: short term profit for rich bankers and investors, long term pain for the Lebanese people as the trick devalued the Lebanese pound, for years pegged at the USD but which has now lost 85% of its value. Since summer last year the economy has been in free-fall, without anything of substantive value to underpin the neat financial tricks, until the government defaulted on its Eurobond debt in March this year. In Lebanon the wealth that has been generated in the banking sector has been siphoned off to who knows where, and the country itself is left literally in the dark, as the government cannot afford to pay for fuel leading to widespread blackouts, and a black market in private generators. This electricity crisis is a symbol of the wider crisis: that of the economic mismanagement of a country and a political class that has underfunded the public sector, neglecting basic public services like electricity, water and waste collection. As Berthier puts it: “The problem with the Lebanese economic miracle—based on banks, real estate and the peg—is that it is thoroughly unproductive … the state invests virtually nothing in infrastructure, innovation, job creation and the like: Lebanon’s 1% of productively invested GDP compares with a global average of 8,2%.”
This kind of malign disdain for the people of Lebanon has inevitably emerged this week in the most explosive way. The people of Beirut were unwittingly sitting on a powder-keg and the government knew about it. Lina Mounzer has written about the underbelly of Beirut in this essay about the sewage system that demonstrates the short-sighted and abject greed of the political elites who were responsible for rebuilding the country at the end of the civil war in 1990. She paints a picture of Beirut as harbinger of vacuous neoliberal nightmare that might await us all if we can’t keep financial elites in check: the rich buy up highly profitable ‘exclusive luxury private’ developments built on an literal overflowing river of shit as the rest of the country is left exposed to the ‘externalities’ of financialised capitalism: poor quality housing, increasing impacts of climate change, and the destruction of the social safety net. She reminds those elites: you can pretend that your shit just disappears for good when you flush, but that hollowing out of public infrastructure you have presided over for years means that inevitably, it will hit the fan: “The corruption of our politicians, the rotten sectarian infrastructure upon which our system is built, our failure to deal with the past before burying it: that’s the shit we’re living in now.”
How to help/where to donate
These are resources that are independent, Lebanese-run and non profit. Some are recommended by Daleel Thawra (Directory of the revolution), which also calls on foreign governments not to give any help or money to the Lebanese government.
Ursula Lindsey: The Lebanese Street Asks: ‘Which is stronger, sect or hunger?’
Lina Mounzer: The Great Lebanese Ponzi Scheme
Lina Mounzer: Letter from Beirut: From revolution to pandemic
Lina Mounzer: Waste Away: Notes on Beirut’s broken sewage system
Adham Saouli: Lebanon: What protests against the sectarian elite mean for Hezbollah