August 11, 2020


Lebanon’s prime minister stepped down from his job Monday in the wake of the catastrophic explosion in Beirut that has triggered public outrage.” AP News

“Residents of Beirut vented their fury at Lebanon’s leaders [last] Thursday during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, blaming them for the deadly explosion that ravaged the capital.” AP News

Both sides condemn the Lebanese government and urge the international community to push for reforms:

“With Lebanon’s debt greater than 170% of its GDP, and with the port explosion costing an estimated $15bn of damage, Lebanon needs foreign assistance to prevent it becoming a failed state. But what it needs even more desperately are reforms that would counter the corruption and lack of accountability that led it to this sorry state of affairs in the first place. It is Lebanon’s existing political system – a power-sharing pact between different sects rather than a system of governance on the basis of competence – that facilitates its leaders’ reckless behaviour…

The international community is partly responsible for sustaining this system through cascading patronage. For decades, Lebanese leaders grew accustomed to neglecting the national interest and eventually being bailed out by international assistance…The port explosion needs to be a wake-up call for any international entity seeking a stable Lebanon… No long-term assistance should flow into Lebanon without strong conditions on transparency and accountability in how this assistance would be employed.”
Lina Khatib, The Guardian

“The best thing the United States and broader international community can do right now is ensure accountability as Lebanon picks up the pieces and rebuilds. There should be judicial accountability not only for authorities in the port who may have been negligent but also for the political leaders who turned a deaf ear to warning about tons of ammonium nitrate stored within a stone’s throw to the heart of the city. There should also be accountability and transparency to ensure that groups like Hezbollah responsible for so many ills in Lebanese society today do not enrich themselves off the construction contracts that will flow into the city, and that elite politicians and power brokers do not likewise siphon off funds as they so often have in the past.”
Michael Rubin, Washington Examiner

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“The IMF [International Monetary Fund] proposal contains some of the usual counterproductive neoliberal austerity it is infamous for. The agency argued that ‘Lebanon's fiscal policy needed a consolidation plan that stabilized debt and then began to reduce it,’ Reuters reported back in 2018. In reality, what Lebanon needs is a large debt cancellation. It would be a mistake to simply bail out the current elite without strings attached, because they would probably just steal the money. But should reasonable conditions be met, the country needs additional borrowing, not austerity, so it can invest in badly-needed infrastructure and elementary public services.”
Ryan Cooper, The Week

“The most urgent needs are humanitarian ones. The blast took out Lebanon’s only large grain silo, for example, and United Nations agencies are helping provide medical aid and food to the country. An unknown number of people remain missing, and 300,000 people are living without basic accommodation and are in desperate need of shelter…

“But protesters do not just want their immediate needs fulfilled. Ultimately, their demands go far deeper — they are calling for structural changes and massive resignations across the political class. Tens of thousands of people have indicated through petitions that they don’t even trust the government to handle the influx of international aid to help with the aftermath of the explosion, with some signing a petition for France to retake control of the country.”
Zeeshan Aleem, Vox

“In Gemmayzeh and later at a press conference in the French embassy, Macron said all the right things: The Lebanese were not alone in their grief, he would rally international donors to help rebuild their damaged capital, and the money would not go to the ‘corrupt hands’ of their politicians. He pledged to return to Beirut on Sept. 1 to personally verify that French aid, funneled through non-governmental organizations, is going ‘directly to the people of Lebanon.’…

“It was Macron at his most statesmanlike, speaking not only for France but for the wider world, and promising to cut through a geopolitical Gordian knot. But the president has a poor track record in turning rhetoric into results. His attempt to mediate the U.S.-Iranian confrontation last year earned him only scorn from both sides. His recent finger-pointing over Libya’s civil war has spared him no blushes. His enthusiasm for the fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa has left French forces in what looks like a quagmire… If he fails to deliver, the streets of Gemmayzeh may not be so welcoming the second time around.”
Bobby Ghosh, Bloomberg

“It is not reassuring… that during his meeting with leaders of the country’s political factions, including Hezbollah, Macron called for a ‘government of national unity.’ This is the same formula, after all, that for decades has effectively led to a government of national disunion. The basis for peace in 1990 — the sharing of power among Maronite and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims — has since metamorphosed into the dividing of riches among these same communities… While Macron’s declaration sounded decisive, the devil remains in the details.”
Robert Zaretsky, Washington Post

Some note that “The United States is becoming like Lebanon and other Middle East countries in two respects. First, our political differences are becoming so deep that our two parties now resemble religious sects in a zero-sum contest for power. They call theirs ‘Shiites and Sunnis and Maronites’ or ‘Israelis and Palestinians.’ We call ours ‘Democrats and Republicans,’ but ours now behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die. And second, as in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics — even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic…

“But a society, and certainly a democracy, eventually dies when everything becomes politics. Governance gets strangled by it. Indeed, it was reportedly the failure of the corrupt Lebanese courts to act as guardians of the common good and order the removal of the explosives from the port — as the port authorities had requested years ago — that paved the way for the explosion.”
Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times

From the Right

“Only a truly dysfunctional government would have allowed a factory filled with ammonium nitrate to sit for years alongside so many civilians. But the explosives are just one example of the problem here. Attested by Lebanon's grave economic crisis, the political class has utterly failed the people. Using government ministries as personal piggy banks, they have plundered the nation's resources…  

“The tragedy here is that [President] Aoun could now use his power to serve the nation. With his Free Patriotic Movement party's 18 parliamentary seats, the highest share of any party, he could demand the support of Hezbollah and its ally, Amal, for serious reform. Aoun could dangle the threat of seeing those parties replaced in government absent that support. The opposite seems to be happening…

“The president has ruled out an international investigation into the port explosion, likely fearing that any objective inquiry will bring to light endemic corruption. Nor does Aoun's son-in-law and party leader, Gerbran Bassil, seem interested in listening to the protesters and moving against the rotten top ranks.”
Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

“The problem is that Lebanon is not a country in any real sense. It is a place where warring tribes — Maronite Catholics, Sunni and Shitte Muslims and Druze — are locked inside borders where they have torn each other to pieces going back to the 1970s. The same is true of neighboring Syria, which is just now winding down its own civil war between rival religious and ethnic groups — a war that cost half a million lives and created more than 5 million refugees. The same can likewise be said of Iraq…

These nations were created after World War I, when Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire and created new entities, whose borders were arbitrarily drawn and whose inhabitants lacked any sense of shared nationhood… Some outsiders might be tempted to try to ‘fix’ Lebanon by helping impose a state modeled on modern and democratic norms, rather than its current tribal and sectarian format. As the United States proved in Iraq, anyone who takes on such a task is ignoring history and common sense and will pay for the hubris in blood and treasure.”
Jonathan Tobin, New York Post

“While Hezbollah has not been blamed for the August 4 warehouse fire that led to the massive explosion, it is alleged to have imported and stored similar stockpiles of dangerous munitions and chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate, used in explosives. Hezbollah also helped create the corrupt and negligent political system whose lack of accountability enabled the careless storage of these deadly chemicals for years…

“In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, aid will be concentrated on finding missing people and avoiding an economic collapse or a health crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Once this period has passed, it is essential that the dust not merely settle with Hezbollah more entrenched and powerful, its system of illicit weapons and warehouses full of munitions still dotting the civilian landscape. If Hezbollah does capitalize on this disaster, it will only accelerate Lebanon’s economic collapse, and hold the country hostage in a future war with Israel.”
Seth J. Frantzman, National Review

Regarding Macron’s visit, “[an] irony of Macron’s Beirut walkabout in contact with semi-insurgent crowds calling for the departure of an insensitive and uncaring elite is the parallel with the gilets jaunes movement. This was not lost on Arab social media where Macron’s hypocrisy was mocked: ‘All France is protesting against the Mac. Yet he will give political lectures to the Lebanese.’…

“You cannot gainsay Macron’s obduracy or his willingness to have a go, even if his initiatives over the Iranian nuclear deal and backing the wrong candidate in the Libyan civil war have come to nought. Often with Macron his failure comes down to poor communication at home and abroad. Arrogance and lesson-giving spoil the policy. Certainly in the case of Lebanon less of the Lawrence of Arabia and more humility would be a start to really helping the Lebanese people and ensuring their country does not become a battleground once again.”
John Keiger, The Spectator

A local perspective

“It’s likely this disaster didn’t happen because just one person was neglectful or was willfully criminal. Did the director of customs get bribed, the port manager? I don’t care right now. It’s not individuals or a certain group. It’s not bad apples, it’s the whole orchard, all the orchards. It’s a systemic failure of governance. For years, every faction in the country blamed the other for any disaster. We had a civil war that ended only when all the sides figured they could steal a lot more money if they cooperated. There were always scapegoats, and I’m sure that some will be offered this time as well. But enough, enough! This government must go. All of them. The government, the president, the prime minister, Hezbollah, the Hariris, the Lebanese forces, the Aouns, the Jumblatts, the Berris, the Gemayels, every one of them. Enough. Get out.”
Rabih Alameddine, Washington Post

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