One year on from Beirut explosion and still no government in Lebanon

Families yet to return to homes while Norwegian Refugee Council says 70,000 jobless

More than 200 people were killed and in excess of 6,000 injured in the Beirut blast that devastated the port area on August 4th, 2020. Photograph: EPA

More than 200 people were killed and in excess of 6,000 injured in the Beirut blast that devastated the port area on August 4th, 2020. Photograph: EPA

 

A year after a massive blast devastated Beirut’s port and nearby neighbourhoods, Lebanese await a government to deal with the tragic results of the explosion and tackle their homeland’s economic meltdown, soaring poverty and acute shortage of essential goods.

The blast – described by Dr Sam Rigby of Sheffield University as “certainly the most powerful non-nuclear explosion of the 21st century” – killed 214, wounded 6,500 and rendered 300,000 homeless.

The UN children’s agency, Unicef, said on Tuesday that more than 600,000 children in greater Beirut had been affected directly or indirectly, including dozens who had lost family members, friends and loved ones. Mental health experts have recorded a surge in psychiatric disorders among adults.

Many families have yet to return to their homes while the Norwegian Refugee Council reported 70,000 have lost jobs.

After last week’s appointment of billionaire businessman Najib Mikati to form a cabinet, many hoped he would form a new government by Tuesday’s anniversary. He failed to do so, however, and on Monday President Michel Aoun, once again, rejected the appointment of technocrats who could initiate reforms in line with a roadmap proposed by France last year.

Unlocking funds

A new government could also unlock $21 billion (€17.7 billion) in foreign donor and International Monetary Fund aid to rescue the economy and reduce the sufferings of the populace.

Aoun insists ministers must be chosen by confessional party bosses and demands for his Free Patriotic Movement the interior ministry, which will conduct next year’s parliamentary election, and the justice ministry, which will handle the port blast investigation and potential charges against politicians.

Political deadlock has led to despair and resignation and a feeling of powerlessness among Lebanese. Peaceful protesters who filled the streets between October 2019 and early 2020, when the pandemic intervened, have given up the campaign for regime change because many Lebanese have expressed the belief that the sectarian powersharing system of governance will never change.

Professionals who staked their future on transition to a secular democratic model are leaving, depriving Lebanon of the men and women needed to rebuild.

Since the early peaceful protests that failed to produce results, angry, hungry Lebanese have rioted and blocked main highways with burning tyres. Sectarian violence has become a serious risk. Last weekend five were killed in communal shootings between feuding Hizbullah supporters and coastal tribesmen.

Amnesty International has accused the politicians of “shamelessly” obstructing Lebanon’s investigation into the port blast while Human Rights Watch has castigated them for negligence and lack of accountability.

Ammonium nitrate

The explosion happened after a cargo of deteriorating ammonium nitrate off-loaded from a Moldovan-flagged freighter was stored for six years in an insecure warehouse while Aoun and three prime ministers – Tamman Salam, Saad Hariri, and Hassan Diab – received 10 warnings about dangers posed by the shipment. They did nothing. No politicians have been among the 25 arrested.

Confusion over the blast reigns. Reuters last week published a leaked October 2020 report by a US Federal Bureau of Investigation team that revealed that only one-fifth of the 2,700 tonnes of the ammonium nitrate exploded, suggesting that four-fifths had been removed or stolen before the blast.

Since Lebanon’s main political parties have appointed officials and agents to port posts, any or none could be responsible. Or, the material could have been stolen, little by little, by port workers for sale to contractors for clearing sites or farmers for fertilizer.

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