Articles

Blast Anniversary May Unleash Lebanon’s Anger
July 25, 2021

By: Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

The countdown to Aug. 4, the anniversary of the port explosion that devastated Beirut and killed more than 200 people, has begun.

In the immediate aftermath of the blast, everyone was busy with relief work, and the visit by French President Emmanuel Macron gave the Lebanese false hope that a solution could be imposed on the country’s corrupt elite. The tragedy itself, which was supposed to be a game changer, quickly lost its impact — but public anger has been brewing for almost a year,and the different protest groups are preparing for the anniversary with hope that this time they will be able to make a difference. The main question is what the international community should do to bring about change in Lebanon.

Two main issues are at play before the anniversary. First, Saad Hariri was unable to form a government for eight months, and resigned as prime minister designate. Unlike in 2011, when Hariri’s departure created havoc on the street, his latest resignation generated no real reaction on the Sunni side — an illustration of the extent to which the traditional leaderships have lost credibility with the average citizen. Second, a new judge, Tarek Bitar, has been assigned to investigate the explosion, and has asked parliament to withdraw immunity from three former ministers so that he can summon them for questioning.

The Beirut blast is of great importance, because it implicated the corrupt elite. The ammonium nitrate that exploded with such devastating effect had been in a Beirut port warehouse since 2013, when it entered Lebanon with the acquiescence of those in power. The initial judge suffered intimidation, with a dead cat left at his door as a warning about what would happen to him or his family if his investigation dared to reveal the culprits, but Bitar so far seems unhindered by threats.

Meanwhile President Michel Aoun has called for parliamentary consultations to nominate a new prime minister on July 26. It is not without irony that among the potential candidates is Najib Mikati, who was prime minister when the deadly ammonium nitrate first entered the port. The French are preparing for a conference to help Lebanon on Aug. 4, and want a government to be formed by then, but how likely is that? And if one were formed, could it really implement reform or would it be as dysfunctional as that of the vain Hassan Diab?  On the other hand, the president seems unconcerned by the absence of an effective government — through the Supreme Defense Council, he is calling the shots.

A casual visitor to Lebanon might think everything was OK; the restaurants and hotels are full, the malls busy. But this is only the calm before the storm. The situation grows harder by the day. The dollar has skyrocketed in value to 23,000 Lebanese pounds, 15 times the official rate of 1,500, but the president — whose eligibility to hold office many doubt —is in total denial. Less than a year ago, when asked where Lebanon was going if a government was not formed, the president replied: "To hell.” Now, amid authoritative predictions that Lebanon would soon become the Venezuela of the Mediterranean, Aoun seems not at all bothered by the suffering of his citizens, and declared after Hariri’s resignation that the hard times would soon be over and the situation would improve.

While the international community does not want Lebanon to collapse, it is incapable of driving any reform through the existing rotten elite, and must realize sooner or later that no acceptable solution will come through that route. However, events drive policy, and much depends on what happens on the anniversary of the explosion. The bankrupt elite will soon run out of the delaying tactics it is using to appease public anger.

The international community cannot impose a government or leaders on the Lebanese state, but it can use the Aug. 4 anniversary to support the people in driving the current elite out. There are three ways in which it can help. The first step would be to protect the army and its commander from political influence. The international community should supportpeople’s right to protest peacefully, and to organize sit-ins at officials’ homes, even at the presidential palace. After all, it was Aoun himself, when he became president in 2016, who changed the name of the palace to the "home of the people.” Since the protests began in 2019, his loyalist legion of presidential guards has been guarding his residence against any approach by the "people.” Maybe now the international community should should liaise with the Maronite Patriarch to support the Lebanese people’s right of access to their "home.”

Second, the international community, and France in particular, should provide judge Bitar with the international cover and protection for his investigation, and ensure that he dives deep into the facts and evidence to identify those responsible forthe explosion.

And third, the international community can conduct its own investigations into Lebanon’s corrupt politicians, with the main aim of uncovering where they are hiding the vast sums of money they have embezzled from the Lebanese people.

Anger is brewing in the run-up to Aug. 4, and it is hard to tell how it will manifest itself — but the international community can help the Lebanese by translating their anger into a viable solution.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.