Kareem Shaheen: Lebanon was already a failed state — now it may starve
The windows in my old apartment had shattered; the newsroom where I used to work was covered in glass.
After I saw the headline, I spent hours scanning social media for any tidbit of information I could find.
That was all I knew. I had lived and reported in Beirut for more than three years. First for the local English paper, The Daily Star, and then for The Guardian. I had never felt as alive as I did when I lived there. It’s city that taught me everything I knew about love, journalism, courage and resilience.
Whether I was reporting on a suicide bombing, or life in the refugee camps, or art and culture, or groundbreaking medical research in its hospitals, There was always immense bravery, and a desire to live life to the fullest. Beirut is a lone, fine violin note piercing the gathering dark of the apocalypse around it.
This disaster seemed different, though. The videos that began circulating showed an explosion and fires raging in a warehouse in the city’s port. Then a plume of red rising smoke and a shockwave that rushed with great violence towards those filming it, parts of buildings disintegrating as it washed over them. Some social media posts said the blast was felt in Cyprus.
I saw a video of The Daily Star office where I used to work, not far from the port. The floor was covered in shattered glass. A friend posted a video of our old apartment on Instagram. It, too, was shattered.
Every friend in Beirut slept in a room without windows that night. They had either suffered injuries, or were lucky enough to be outside their homes and far enough away when it happened. The photos from their blown up children’s rooms made me feel ill.
The Lebanese prime minister and security officials said the explosion was likely caused by a 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had been abandoned in the port. By comparison, the Oklahoma City bombing was about 2.2 tons of the same substance.
Reports indicate that the ammonium nitrate had been seized years ago, and knowing Lebanon, it was left there either out of negligence, or because the self-interested ruling classes of the country — a mafia in its own right — could not agree on how to divvy up the profits from the stuff.
Naturally, America’s arsonist and conspiracy theorist in chief, Donald Trump, speculated in a press conference that the explosion looked like a bomb. His generals told journalists, anonymously, that they had no idea what he was talking about.
But in a country already on the verge of collapse, the damage of this speculation was done. Conspiracy theories are now rampant.
One that made the rounds seized on a tweet by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a raid on pro-Iranian targets in Syria, and linked it to the Beirut explosion. The terrible size of the explosion prompted fears that it was a tactical nuclear strike. Independent Arabia — which licenses the British Independent newspaper brand and is owned by a Saudi Arabian publisher — reported, falsely, that the Canadian embassy said that the explosion’s fallout contained depleted uranium. Another media organization linked to the Lebanese president’s party claimed the explosive material was bound for terrorist groups in Syria.
The explosion could not have come at a worse time. Even before the blast, Lebanon was a failed state. Over most of the past year, it has suffered hyperinflation akin to the crisis in Venezuela.
Lebanon endured a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 with an accord that divided power equally among its various religions and sects, while ensuring no accountability for the warlords who reigned over militias that carried out atrocities.
Many of these warlords, or their sons, are still in charge, and have built corrupt patronage networks to enrich themselves and their loyalists. Most are beholden to outside powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have turned Lebanon into a proxy battleground for their own geopolitical interests. The most powerful military force in the country is Hezbollah, Iran’s favoured proxy militia, which was instrumental in keeping Syria’s dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, in power. The war drove a million Syrians to seek refuge in Lebanon, which had a pre-war population of just four million.
Fiercely anti-sectarian protests against the corrupt elites began last October, over a range of grievances that include abject poverty, high unemployment, poor to non-existent services like basic electricity and water, and the open depravity of the political class.
Since then, the country has endured one crisis after another. The Coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown further devastated the economy. In March, the country defaulted for the first time on Eurobond debt repayments, and its debt burden is one of the highest in the world, at 170 per cent of GDP. Most ordinary citizens and local businesses have had very little access to their bank deposits in recent months.
Foreign currency reserves plummeted, and the value of the Lebanese pound fell by about 80 per cent in the last few months, wiping out savings. Meanwhile, wealthy patrons are believed to have siphoned off billions of dollars and moved it offshore. An IMF rescue package of $10 billion is still stalled because the ruling elites have so far refused to agree to structural reforms that would eat into their patronage networks.
Meanwhile, ordinary Lebanese continue to suffer. Power cuts in the summer often drag on for for 20 hours a day or more . Fuel shortages mean even private suppliers cannot make up for the shortfall. It also means hospitals cannot operate generators, and food goes bad quickly. Food is harder to import and move around with a lack of fuel and a crashing currency.
Lebanon imports the vast majority of its food, and most of it used to travel through the port that now lies in ruins, its grain silos destroyed. In July, Save the Children predicted that children would start dying of hunger by year’s end.
That may come sooner than expected.
And, of course, the country is collapsing in tandem with a surge in Coronavirus cases. Last week, the country re-imposed a broad lockdown on entertainment venues, houses of worship and markets just before the Eid holidays to curb a rapid increase in infections.
Nothing epitomizes it better than the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz’s lyrics in her tribute and eulogy to the city, “Li Beirut” (to Beirut). “My city extinguished its lamp, closed its door, and at night it was in solitude with the dark.”
Kareem Shaheen is a freelance journalist based in Montreal.
Also on The Line today, Ken Boessenkool diagnoses why Canadian governments have struggled to meet the challenge of providing childcare during the pandemic. The problem is not, he says, too many conservatives in provincial offices. The real problem? Our governments are too focused on numbers and not enough on people. Canadian governments typically have three “central agencies” to oversee the work of their governments,” he writes. “If these three central agencies were three people, you’d have a politician, an accountant and a (macro) economist.” And none of them, he notes, are likely to be mothers with young children.