The explosion that killed at least 145 people, wounded 5,000 others and rendered hundreds of thousands of Beirutis homeless on Tuesday raises two fundamental questions.
How did a country of such beauty, charm and talent come to be a byword for corruption and criminal negligence of obscene proportions? Is there any hope of pulling Lebanon back from the brink?
French president Emmanuel Macron was greeted like a rock star when he visited the devastated port on Thursday. In remarks at the French ambassador's mansion, the Résidence des Pins, Macron expressed "infinite sadness, deep solidarity" and said he shared "the healthy anger" of the people he'd spoken with.
Macron called for an international investigation into the causes of the explosion. President Michel Aoun rejected the idea in a television interview on Friday, saying "the goal [of an international inquiry] would be to dilute truth." By mid-afternoon on Friday, nearly 35,000 people had signed an online petition demanding just such an investigation.
Within hours of the explosion, Lebanese commentators protested that reconstruction aid must not end up in the pockets of corrupt rulers. “We will put in place a clear, transparent governance for all aid,” Macron promised.
The French president will return to the Résidence des Pins on September 1st, to mark the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the État du Grand Liban by French general Henri Gouraud.
France ruled Lebanon under a League of Nations Mandate from 1923 until 1943. Its parting gift, the so-called National Pact, was in reality a curse.
Under the National Pact, high-level offices in Lebanon are attributed by religious affiliation. This has created fierce loyalty to family and community, but no sense of the common good. Institutionalised sectarianism breeds corruption, because the Lebanese turn to leaders of their own groups to settle disputes and to obtain permits, scholarships and employment.
Citizens look not to the government but to their za’im or chieftains for services the state ought to provide. The system infects everything. In May, the Lebanese learned that their president’s son-in-law demanded a “Christian” power plant near his home town of Batroun, to balance “Sunni” and “Shia” power plants in other regions. The Siemens company said the “Christian” plant was not needed. Lebanon has spent US$40 billion on electrification since the 1975-1990 civil war, and still cannot provide continuous current.
Leaders from all sects were assassinated in the war. The survivors clung stubbornly to power or passed positions to their descendents
In their own defence, the Lebanese say their country was destabilised by the arrival of Palestinian refugees, and by prolonged Syrian and Israeli occupations. The excuse is partly valid, but Lebanese factions willingly allied themselves with invaders, and massacred each other.
The power of Hizbullah, the Shia Muslim party and militia backed by Iran and Syria, is another frequently cited reason for Lebanon's debacle. But if Hizbullah was able to establish a state within a state, it was because Lebanese leaders left a void.
A rumour in Beirut says the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that exploded on Tuesday were stored in unsafe conditions in Beirut port, while corrupt officials haggled with potential clients over a sale. I have no evidence this is true, but the fact that it is believed is significant. As Lenin said, "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them."
Leaders from all sects were assassinated in the war. The survivors clung stubbornly to power or passed positions to their descendents. President Aoun and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, who Macron met on Thursday, are respectively 85 and 82 years old. Both were civil-war protagonists when I first reported from Lebanon in the late 1980s. The names of the political party leaders Macron met with were echoes of the past: Frangieh, Geagea, Gemayel, Hariri, Joumblatt.
In what may have been an allusion to the National Pact with which France blighted Lebanon, Macron said he was “here today to propose a new political pact”.
Another online petition, this one demanding a return to a French mandate for the next ten years, garnered nearly 60,000 signatures by Friday. Macron rejected the idea, noting that the Lebanese elected their leaders.
Can Lebanon pull out of the most dire economic and political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war? One might be tempted to suggest a UN mandate, if the 1980s Multinational Force had not ended with the deaths of 241 US Marines and 58 French paratroopers in suicide bombings.
In late June, I attended a Franco-Lebanese dinner in Paris. The host despaired over the resignation of Alain Bifani, the top civil servant in Lebanon's finance ministry. Henri Chaoul, another Lebanese financial official who was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund, resigned earlier the same month.
Bifani blamed “forces of darkness and injustice” for sabotaging efforts to resolve the country’s financial crisis. He said he “refused to be part of, or witness to, what is being done.”
The idea of an IMF mandate for Lebanon, which would impose new rules and rigorous surveillance, seems to be taking hold. Over the long term, international technocrats cannot be a substitute for a viable Lebanese government.
For that to be achieved, the Lebanese must vote for leaders on the basis of merit and probity, not religious affiliation. The civil service must be staffed according to the same criteria. Public contracts must be the result of a transparent bidding process rather than nepotism. The corrupt men who brought Lebanon to this impasse must be punished, or at the very least pronounced ineligible for public office.