Paris – On Tuesday 4 August, 2020 an enormous explosion triggered by roughly 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate carelessly stored in a warehouse in the city’s port killed at least 171 people, left more than 6,000 injured and over 300,000 people homeless in Beirut, Lebanon. The devastating incident has angered the Lebanese with many seeing the blast as the final stroke of prolonged suffering after the country’s long string of economic woes, its waste crisis and undemocratic governance.
Billions of dollars worth of damage, residents began collectively working through the rubble, sweeping shattered glass and debris with durability and resentment. Shortly after the explosion, Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared a two-week-long state of emergency, giving the military authority to confront the catastrophic incident. French President Emmanuel Macron visited the location of the blast and initiated an international conference with the European Union, the United States and other countries which raised close to $300 million in aid for Lebanon. Macron warned that without genuine reforms and action against corruption, the country could quickly exhaust its fuel and food resources within months. During his visit, Macron called for “strong political initiatives to fight against corruption” and a “transparent audit of the central bank and the banking system” or “the country would continue to sink.”
With anger mounting due to the deadly blast, thousands poured onto the streets demanding significant reform in the country. Protesters across Lebanon stormed government ministries and headquarters of various banks. Calling for the complete dismantling of the ruling elite, crowds ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 marched calling out anti-government slogans with some hurling rocks and sticks at police. Protests have been escalating in violence as frustrated demonstrators have been met with rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition from police. Over 700 protesters have been injured and one police officer has been killed since anti-government clashes began. The US Embassy in Beirut posted on Twitter supporting Lebanese demonstrators but urged those involved to refrain from violence, the tweet also read, “The Lebanese people deserve to have leaders who listen to them and change course to respond to popular demands for transparency and accountability.”
On Monday 10 August, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation condemning “endemic corruption” and other powerful political figures. In the televised address, he announced he was taking “a step back” so he could stand alongside his people “and fight the battle for change with them.”
In December 2019, Hassan Diab was appointed Prime Minister after mass protests. For years, there has been a maze of voices and a clear status quo with various religious sectors and political parties considered the ruling elite and acting on insatiable interests. For decades, these religious and political circles have been the cause of corruption and poor governance, leaving the country in economic calamity and the local currency losing 79 percent of its value since October 2019. Anger has long been escalating over the country’s multiple crises that many have little faith in a coalition that will lead the country out of this disaster.
Since the country’s 1943 national pact, institutionalized sectarianism has resulted in a destructive government and ensured that only members of the most powerful families in particular sects rose to the top. Originally, the idea was to give all sects in Lebanon a stake in the new republic and allow people a chance to gain confidence in the state where eventually sectarianism would be phased out and democracy would then thrive in its place. However, the reality is that the national pact and sectarianism in Lebanon has created a kleptocracy and instead of bringing democracy to the forefront, it has breathed new life into feudalism and nepotism.
Before the explosion, one third of the population lived below the poverty line due to the outcome of policy makers who cater only to the interests of this ruling elite. 30 percent of the country’s youth are without jobs and the government’s proposed taxes to manage the country’s economy and climbing debt has crippled citizens with already low salaries and affected the country’s public services and access to food, water and electricity.
The recent explosion is now adding to the country’s hardships, the currency will no doubt drop even further, hundreds of thousands of people will sink below the poverty line and according to the UN food agency, in as little as three weeks, the country could run out of bread because 85% of the country’s grain came through Beirut’s destroyed port.
Genuine change of this long-ruling class is imperative to ensure the country can break free from the political gridlock and promotion of each party that puts its own interests first rather than the interests of the country as a whole. Sectarianism has created a toxic and defensive attitude that has encouraged corruption since members of a particular sect will not criticize one of their own out of fear of handing ammunition to a rivaling sect. Lebanon has an opportunity to tackle this issue by bridging these sectarian divides to demand reform and put an end to this long-standing corruption. The entirety of Lebanon society has to accept being ruled by an exemplary government that embodies talented individuals, regardless of their sectarian and religious backgrounds. Detoxifying society from decades of mistrust, especially during a time of a painful and historic disaster, will be a leap of faith but one essential in rebuilding an exceedingly divided Lebanese society.
L’Association Francophone pour les Droits de l’Homme (AFDH) calls for complete transparency and democracy that allows the most talented individuals to serve the state. They must be held accountable for their actions and people must be free to choose the individuals or party that best represent their aspirations without fear of any consequences of such a choice. We believe that no individual, sect or party must ever again be allowed to impose its will on the whole country and every institution and branch of government in the country must become fully integrated to ensure that no sect is in charge of any particular government service.
Although we believe in accountability and justice for those who have leveraged themselves and their parties unlawfully, AFDH sees that the unprecedented amount of corruption in the Lebanese government could be demanding to punish. We instead call for a blanket pardon with truth and reconciliation committees, followed by strict judicial penalties for any future acts of corruption.
Lastly, we upon the international community to continue its support for Lebanon that puts the needs of the Lebanese people first. It is our hope that Lebanon can one day rebuild its economy, accountability and trust where sectarianism and corruption are replaced with genuine democratic governance.