Roundup

Beirut’s Port Explosion, One Year Later

Compounding economic and political crises have made for a pyrrhic recovery from the brink. Here’s why.

By , the social media editor at Foreign Policy.
A crowd cheers members of the Lebanese Civil Defense during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Beirut port explosion on Aug. 11, 2020.
A crowd cheers members of the Lebanese Civil Defense during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Beirut port explosion on Aug. 11, 2020. Photo by PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images

By now, the world knows this: Lebanon’s tragedy at the Port of Beirut in the early evening of Aug. 4, 2020, began with a mysterious plume of smoke, followed by threatening sparks the size of fireworks, and then—seemingly out of nowhere—a catastrophic mushroom cloud accompanied by a mad and terrible roar.

The sudden ignition of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate due to a warehouse fire leveled entire buildings within thousands of feet of clearance, killed around 200 people, and procured some $15 billion in property damage. Days later, the entire Lebanese cabinet would step down, followed by then-Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab. 

Yet the explosion at the capital city’s waterfront was merely the punctuation mark at the end of multiple crises: a rapidly dwindling economy, a scourge of unemployment, a generations-long culture of corruption among the political elite, and record-shattering bouts of civil unrest beginning the year prior. 

By now, the world knows this: Lebanon’s tragedy at the Port of Beirut in the early evening of Aug. 4, 2020, began with a mysterious plume of smoke, followed by threatening sparks the size of fireworks, and then—seemingly out of nowhere—a catastrophic mushroom cloud accompanied by a mad and terrible roar.

The sudden ignition of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate due to a warehouse fire leveled entire buildings within thousands of feet of clearance, killed around 200 people, and procured some $15 billion in property damage. Days later, the entire Lebanese cabinet would step down, followed by then-Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab. 

Yet the explosion at the capital city’s waterfront was merely the punctuation mark at the end of multiple crises: a rapidly dwindling economy, a scourge of unemployment, a generations-long culture of corruption among the political elite, and record-shattering bouts of civil unrest beginning the year prior. 

The explosion at the capital city’s waterfront was merely the punctuation mark at the end of multiple crises.

“What’s happening in Lebanon is the death spiral of the country’s post-civil war order,” FP’s Steven Cook wrote on July 30, 2020—five days before the port blast. Monumental protests beginning in October 2019 stemmed from the country’s worsening downward mobility, Cook wrote. In a conversation with First Person podcast host Sarah Wildman, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Maha Yahya, explained that protesters were directing their anger toward the political elite for years of corruption and mismanagement. Incompetent rule had led to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound—a massive downgrade by international ratings agencies—rapid inflation, and mass unemployment that left more than half the population in poverty.

Then, it happened. A country facing political and economic disillusionment quickly transformed into a country bedeviled by anguish. What has the country been through since then? And now that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has stepped down, where is it headed? Foreign Policy has gathered its most important reads to answer this.

As FP reported, the blast pummeled the country’s refugee population—one of the highest in the world—into further destitution. In addition, the Port of Beirut was one of the main logistical hubs through which the United Nations and other organizations sent supplies to more than 11 million people dependent on aid in Syria. Its destruction stymied the transport of aid for those who needed it most, both within and outside of Beirut’s city limits.

As the months progressed, Lebanon suffered a 220 percent increase in coronavirus cases. Hospitals were at capacity, and 111 villages and towns countrywide were under lockdown. With the government stepping down, volunteer assistance poured into Lebanon to provide medical triage. Last October, FP’s Anchal Vohra reported on the loss of hope, especially among medical professionals: “It is almost as if the Lebanese have reached an undetermined threshold of suffering and crossed over to despair.” 

To a degree, the blast was intrinsically linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: An investigation by Lebanese filmmaker Firas Hatoum found that the ammonium nitrate that triggered the blast may have been intended for the Syrian government. Hatoum’s investigation established a link between three Russian-Syrian businesspeople who backed Assad in the Syrian war and what appears to be a shell company that bought the explosives. Such findings lended themselves to a “good-faith investigation,” wrote Vohra in January. “The problem is that Lebanese officials have been working to frustrate the one that is underway.” 

Syria’s proximity to this tragedy was thrown into sharper relief: The Assad regime worked to undermine Lebanon’s economic integrity by driving up exchange rates for its weakened currency while fortifying influence through Hezbollah and other political groups. Such actions, experts feared, would put more pressure on the Lebanese government to kick out the roughly 1.5 million refugees in the country.

Even with the help of states like France, very little has changed.

Further mismanagement would continue to batter Lebanon’s economic infrastructure well into this year: Since its uprisings in October 2019, the value of the Lebanese pound has been in constant decline. Vohra explained that although everyday Lebanese were only allowed to withdraw Lebanese pounds at a severe loss compared to the market rate, the country’s political elite were essentially bailed out. The government had no fiscal and monetary plan to assuage the crisis, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) waited for its suggested reforms to be met before it gave the country a bail-out loan.

Last month, Hariri stepped down as prime minister-designate after only a nine-month stint where he was tasked with securing a new government and IMF assistance. On the condition of anonymity, one of Hariri’s proposed cabinet members conveyed to Vohra that due to Hariri’s exeunt, neither Lebanese President Michel Aoun nor a caretaker government may be able to appeal to the IMF or greater international community for help.

Even with the help of states like France, very little has changed. French President Emmanuel Macron was the first foreign leader to visit Lebanon after the crisis, and he launched a French initiative that depended on the same political class accused of the crises the country is facing today, Vohra wrote in June. Macron’s plan sought the formation of a new technocratic government, an early election, and reforms at least in the electricity sector to provide people with an adequate power supply. But “France’s reluctance to impose harsh sanctions and inflict a cost on the political elite instead of merely plead with them to do the right thing was utterly naïve—and ultimately destructive,” Vohra wrote.

More broadly, the region has been haunted by authoritarianism, extremism, violence, and civil conflict since the Arab Spring in 2011. Washington’s best response to this disorder may be no response at all, FP’s Steven Cook wrote last September, and the expected new wave of democratization, economic stability, and political progress may never come.

In that piece, Cook went down a list of battered countries—from Yemen to Syria to Libya and beyond—with questionable sovereignty and bad governance. Yet, Cook warned, “new depths of turmoil are still possible to achieve.”

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

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