People wave Lebanese flags at a protest near Beirut's port on Aug. 11, 2020. [Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Beirut's port explosion turned citizens' resilience into rage

Beirutis have lived through a revolution, a global pandemic, and mass currency inflation all in the past year. This burden on their backs has been romanticized as “resilience” — until a massive explosion at Beirut’s port rocked the city, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands. That’s when resilience turned to rage.

Ever since the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon has been run by a small collection of political leaders. Many are former warlords. The blood on their hands was rinsed by a post-war agreement they made to not prosecute one another.

For the last 30 years, this small group has simmered sectarian, religious, political, and racial tensions to grow their following and gain political power. Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and the Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea are predominantly supported by the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Syria and Iran traditionally have backed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah; Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s speaker of parliament since 1992; and Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Then there’s the Progressive Socialist Party’s Walid Jumblatt, who shifts back and forth based on convenience.

In the end, whether or not their parties are in control of the government is of little importance. These feudal lords have built deep systems of patronage that control and profit off of all the country's public services. The result has been absolutely disastrous for Lebanon’s poorest people. For many middle-class Lebanese, power cuts and water shortages are subsidized through black-market private sector sales. The poor, meanwhile, live in the dark and manage.

This widespread corruption is no secret in Lebanon. But fear-mongering has been the political class’ most lethal tool. The memory of the civil war is vivid in every Lebanese person’s mind, either from personal experience or via stories passed down through generations. For so long, there’s been a common realpolitik refrain in the country that goes something like this: “Sure, he’s corrupt, but everyone is corrupt in Lebanon. And he’s better than the other guy.”

The October 17 Revolution of last year seemed to finally breech that sectarian division. Fear of the other gave way to solidarity. Fed up with governmental corruption, former sympathizers shed their party colors and took to the streets in united opposition of the government. A few incidents went viral, including a citywide DJ party hosted from a balcony of a public square, and protesters singing “Baby Shark” to a scared child in a passing car. This summed up the moment in history: Lebanese were filled with hope that they may finally have a say in building a country that serves its people.

The government was successfully toppled after al-Hariri resigned in early November. Protesters rejoiced — but that would be as good as it would get. The evil brilliance of the political class is that they don’t have to be the face of the government to pull the strings. Even with al-Hariri gone from the public eye, these leaders still maintain control of most state institutions. Behind the scenes they can still cripple any governmental efforts at reform. And so, as time passed, the revolution started to stutter.

The political class, ever the expert puppeteers, formed a new government that they could operate from the shadows. The new government bought them time as public anger subsided or began to focus on other daily problems.

Then a global pandemic hit, effectively burying the revolution. That was followed by a currency devaluation of 80%. Half the country fell below the poverty line. Anger began to simmer once again.

Then the blast happened.

At 6:09 pm on Aug. 4, nearly 3 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut’s port. Normally, there are patterns when an explosion happens in Beirut: Reports of an explosion hit Twitter; an early death toll is shared usually just before a cause is determined. But this one played out differently.

This time, the entire city of Beirut felt the blast. Even 145 miles away, in Cyprus, buildings shook. Those of us abroad saw short, often frantic messages on social media. A death toll didn’t start to emerge until hours later. The entire city was in shock. And when videos surfaced of the damage, Lebanon went viral one more time.

People take part in an anti-government protest on Aug. 11, 2020, in Beirut, Lebanon. [Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Among the dead were many Lebanese, but also Syrian refugees who’d escaped one corrupt regime only to be killed by the negligence of another. There were domestic workers among the dead; mainly from countries like Ethiopia and the Philippines, these people, mostly women, are struggling under the inhumane Kafala system, which strips them of their passport. Over 300,000 people are now without homes. Many restaurants, bars, and businesses are destroyed. And among the most worrying facts of all is that some hospitals, already struggling for equipment and funding due to the dire economic situation and COVID-19, are now completely inoperable.

Since the blast, Aoun, the Lebanese president, has blocked calls for an independent international investigation. Donations have flooded in from many in the Lebanese diaspora and concerned people worldwide. Many Lebanese who left their country for better economic opportunities abroad are sending back the few hundreds or thousands they can spare.

Meanwhile, the millionaires who have made their fortunes in Lebanon through robbing their own people have called for foreign aid to fix their colossal mistake. Many Lebanese citizens are deeply skeptical that any money passing through government hands will ever reach those directly hurt by the blast.

The United Nations, along with the U.S. and other individual countries, have called for an investigation into what upended the capital city. For the majority of Beirutis, though, no such effort is needed. It doesn’t matter who caused the fire that led to the biggest blast in Lebanon’s history. It’s already clear that the political power that rules the country is to blame.

Details have since emerged that the ammonium nitrate had been stored in Beirut’s port since 2014. Multiple reports had been written about the dangerous stockpile and delivered to officials as high as the Lebanese president, with no action taken. Numerous individual officials failed to act directly, and they will forever have the souls of the departed to haunt their dreams.

But a greater culture of corruption is also to blame here. Synaps, a research and analysis entity based in Beirut, interviewed a port worker in 2017 and found that the port was being grossly mismanaged.

The blast has sharpened the focus on Lebanon’s systemic corruption, and the men that profit handsomely from it. Protesters have descended to Martyr’s Square, Beirut’s main plaza, once again. But this time it’s not to sing Baby Shark — the hope that emanated from the streets in October is long gone. It’s time to get revenge.

The anger is palpable in a way not seen in at least the last decade, and maybe since the civil war. The Arabic hashtag for “Bring out the nooses” has gone viral. After the blast, protesters constructed nooses in Martyr’s Square and hung cardboard cutouts of their political leaders. Protesters also took over various public ministry buildings. In some cases, they lit the structures on fire; in others, they dug through government documents that proved vast and easily identifiable cases of corruption. Some protesters took the obligatory photo of Aoun off the wall of the foreign ministry and stepped on it, a sign of blatant disrespect. Others worked to tear down the makeshift walls security forces constructed around the empty parliament building.

The parliament responded by giving the Lebanese military more power — which has critics worried it will be easier for the government to crack down on dissent and use increased force against protesters. For them, it’s just the latest tactic by the political class to oppress and terrorize their own people — even if it belies a little fear, too.

Resilience was always a burden more than a truth. Living through trauma is not exactly a choice. But the fallacy of resilience is gone for Beirutis, and behind it is uncertainty and hopelessness. Most Lebanese have not only had their hopes dashed time after time, but now the blast has also broken their spirits.

The immense physical damage has largely been assessed. The psychological toll is something else entirely, which will begin to be gauged in the coming months — possibly years. It’s unprecedented, that’s certain. But what’s also unprecedented is the public demand for justice: legal or otherwise.