Why Beirut’s explosion was years in the making

HMN - Why Beirut’s explosion was years in the making

Originally published on The Telegraph

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong for Lebanon. The country – described in better times variously as the Paris of the Middle East for its exuberant glamour and the Switzerland of the region for its exemplary banking sector – had looked to be thriving in recent years.

Tourist numbers were up, the beaches along its beautiful Mediterranean coastline were packed. The middle classes appeared more comfortable than they had ever been.

For those who had money at least, Lebanon was a pleasant enough place to live. 

But the image belied a much more complicated reality – something I witnessed first-hand as a correspondent in the capital, Beirut, for The Telegraph.

Lebanon had borrowed up to its eyeballs and it was only a matter of time before the bubble burst. Corruption and greed among its ruling class – warlords who had held onto power since the end of the civil war in 1990 – had helped bleed the country dry. The politicians didn’t even bother trying to hide it, simply blaming one another for the empty coffers.

HMN - Why Beirut’s explosion was years in the making
A helicopter attempts to put out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital Beirut CREDIT: Getty

Infighting between the competing religious sects over who would be awarded the spoils had left them virtually incapable of governing. 

The problem with Lebanon, as Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it, is that “corruption has been democratised, it’s not sitting centrally with one man. It’s all over.”

Many in Lebanon had predicted an explosion, though few could have imagined it would come in the form of the 2,750-tonne blast that would devastate half the city.

Beirutis on Tuesday began cursing the country’s politicians before an official investigation was even underway. Experience had taught them that either incompetence or negligence would be behind the disaster, which has claimed the lives of at least 75 people and injured as many as 3,000 more.

Initial reports suggested that authorities had seized several thousand tonnes of highly combustible ammonium nitrate a number of years ago and had been storing it at the seaport. The blast was suspected to have been triggered by a welder’s fire.

Questions will soon be asked as to who signed off on the idea to keep such a large quantity of a volatile and explosive substance stored in a densely populated civilian area. 

“What exploded today in Beirut is not just ammonium nitrate. It is above all corruption, mismanagement, incompetency and cynical disregard for the security and lives of people,” wrote Lebanese national Dyab Abou Jahjah, expressing the thoughts of many of his countrymen.

Lebanon had for months been teetering towards ruin.

By the time I left Beirut in February after a four-year reporting stint, there were daily street protests against government corruption. Saad Hariri, the prime minister (of course the son of a previous premier) stepped down only to be replaced by another equally loathed businessman.

HMN - Why Beirut’s explosion was years in the making
Lebanese have been out on the streets for months, protesting perceived government corruption CREDIT: Shutterstock

Then the coronavirus hit. Lebanon had the sense to shut down – fearing that its already beleaguered hospitals would not be able to cope with a major outbreak

But the lockdown sent its poorest – rendered jobless – spiralling into even deeper poverty.

At the same time, the country was beginning to feel the full effect of its freefalling economy. The country’s currency lost 60 per cent in value in a matter of weeks. Last month it became the first in the Middle East in history to experience hyperinflation.

Food prices soared 200 per cent. A jar of instant Nescafe coffee peaked at $50 – a week’s wages for many.lebanon

Beirut’s once proud and thriving middle class have been forced to sell possessions online. Some have even begged for money for nappies. 

They knew there was no point looking to the government for help, it had been unable to provide the basics to its people – including water and electricity – even during the “good times”.

On Monday, the country’s foreign minister resigned, warning that a lack of vision and a will to implement reforms risked turning Lebanon into a “failed state.” There is little to suggest it can do much now to avoid its wretched fate.

Thousands in the Lebanese capital would have had a restless sleep in their dark, hot and windowless homes last night, contemplating what has befallen them. The windows may have been knocked out by the blast, but the darkness was of the country’s own making.