Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


Lebanon is no stranger to turmoil and devastation. The small country straddles the geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East and endured a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. On Aug. 4, the port of Lebanese capital Beirut was rocked by the most devastating blast in the history of the country. It was so massive that the associated shock waves were felt in Cyprus 240 kilometres away. It left more than 150 dead, more than 5000 wounded and extensive destruction, particularly in and around the seaport facilities where it occurred. Officials have said it was caused by the detonation of chemicals stored there, without saying whether it was an accident or an attack.


After gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon created a political system headed by Maronite Christians (represented by the president), Shiite Muslims (represented by the speaker of parliament), and Sunni Muslims (represented by the prime minister). After the civil war (1975 - 1990), in 2005 the Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated and a war between Israel and Hezbollah started in 2006.

In the last decade, sectarian tensions between Hezbollah and Sunni groups have increased causing a political gridlock. In May 2018, Lebanon held elections and Hezbollah increased its share of seats to 53 percent. Lebanese politics have become a proxy battleground for Iran which provides, through Syria, support for Shiite Hezbollah; and Saudi Arabia, which supports Sunni politicians.

The Lebanese economy

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Nassif Hitti, resigned on Aug. 3, the day before the port explosion, accusing colleagues of lacking any intention to institute meaningful reforms and warning that conflicting interests threatened to turn the country into “a failed state.”

The badly damaged port facility is Lebanon’s largest maritime gateway and authorities are now worried on how the import-dependent country will bring in badly needed food, medical supplies and other goods.

Lebanon’s economy was already struggling partly because of the political gridlock, but also because of spillover from the Syrian civil war. In addition to hosting more than 1.5 million refugees (nearly one million of whom are Syrian), the conflict in Syria has affected cross-border trade and Lebanon’s tourism industry.

Lebanon is under the weight of its economic meltdown, with the rapid devaluation of the local currency and a volatile exchange rate on the black market fuelling inflation, shuttering businesses and plunging many people into unemployment and poverty. Fuel shortages and bread lines have become common. Furthermore, amidst a worsening corona virus outbreak, healthcare providers have also faced shortages of essential medical supplies.

The explosion

The blast was initially attributed to a shipment of fireworks, but it was later revealed to be 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate sitting in a warehouse which ignited, causing the huge explosion. Given the complex political dynamics at play in the country, the speed at which some theories spread seems to be driven by partisan political agendas.

Immediate suspicion fell on an Israeli strike against Hezbollah assets, given the recent rise in tensions along the southern border and the risk of another Israel-Hezbollah war. The smoke of the explosion could well be missile fuel which may mean a missile storage facility was likely hit by Israel with a guided bomb dropped by a jet fighter-bomber.

Both Israel and Hezbollah were quick to deny any involvement in the matter. Whatever the immediate cause, the reason for the deadly explosion in Beirut is criminal neglect and a rotten system built and maintained by the country’s political elite. In the end, however, whether this devastating event was the result of a nefarious internal plot, an Israeli operation or sheer incompetence and criminal neglect, the results will ultimately be the same: more suffering for the Lebanese people.

The Hariri Assassination Verdict

In a disturbing convergence of pathos, there is more fallout still to come from explosions of the past. Last week, the United Nations was scheduled to deliver its final verdict on the last major blast to rock the capital city, 15 years ago, when a massive hidden bomb incinerated the armoured car of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in his motorcade.

At the time of his assassination, Mr. Hariri, likely to be reappointed, was clashing with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose country’s military had been occupying Lebanon for nearly three decades.

Mr. Hariri had been seeking to end Syria’s domination. He also disliked Hezbollah’s close links with Syria and Iran. But the possible roles of Syria and Iran in the assassination were enormously difficult to prove and were not examined at the trial, a lapse that was widely criticized. Instead, the prosecution focused on the activities of four low-level defendants linked to Hezbollah.

A fifth suspect, the highest ranking, a close confidant of Mr. Nasrallah, was dropped from the indictment after he was killed in Syria. Fear among Lebanese officials that a trial could not be held safely in Beirut led to the creation of the court, known as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, formed in 2009 under a resolution of the United Nations Security Council.

But witnesses feared testifying; some recanted or disappeared. Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor sent by the United Nations soon after the killing, reported that his work had been frustrated by the Syrian authorities, who had denied any involvement. Then Mr. Mehlis left the investigation, having been warned that U.N. officials could no longer guarantee his security

The polarization surrounding the trial partly reflected Lebanon’s failure to address the trauma of its 1975-1990 civil war. For some critics of the expanding field of international justice, the Lebanon Tribunal has thrown fresh doubts on the efficacy of creating costly special institutions to deal with distant and complex crimes. In this case, an inconclusive outcome is expected as the defendants were absent.


Before the disaster, Lebanese people were already struggling to make ends meet during the Covid-19 pandemic, against the backdrop of long-standing political unrest, an unprecedented economic crisis and famine. With a corrupt political elite, high rates of unemployment and inadequate access to vital resources including electricity, water and waste management, the price of food, fuel and basic necessities have sky-rocketed.

Now stronger protests have broken out on the streets of Beirut over the weekend as shock from Aug. 4 explosion gave way to added anger about government corruption, negligence and economic mismanagement. Nearly 800 people have been injured in the demonstrations. Security forces have fired tear gas at those who were protesting.

People are very, very angry, done and tired with this situation and just would like to sit at home, or just leave or escape as many of them don't really have the energy to put in protest anymore. But the only space that still exists for people is the streets and to take the streets back because there's really nothing to lose at this point.

Possible political developments

Lebanon has traditionally been a strong U.S. partner in the Middle East. However, security risks, including weak governance, a shaky economy, destabilizing spillover from the Syrian civil war, and the increasing tension between Israel and Hezbollah, have alarmed U.S. policy-makers, as well as leaders of partner states in Europe and the Persian Gulf. U.S. policy-makers remain focused on mitigating the instability in Lebanon in order to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war and to prevent the growing influence of Iran in the region.


Once known for its food, music and culture, Lebanon is now in the midst of the worst crisis in modern history. A small middle-eastern country , Lebanon takes pride in its emigrant community with countless people in Canada, US and Britain.

The Lebanese diaspora is estimated to be about three times the size of the Lebanese population back home.

Lebanon, a service based economy, due to corruption did not develop self-sustaining domestic industries and is importing 4/5 of its products: oil, meat, grain and many other supplies. Lebanon cannot begin to rebuild its country without establishing a new monetary system. It remains to be seen which path Lebanon will choose.

“World powers have a duty to support the Lebanese people” French President Macron told an emergency donors conference on Aug. 10. But foreign governments are wary about writing blank cheques to a government perceived by its own people to be deeply corrupt. Anyway Macron said the international response should be coordinated by the United Nations.

"Our task today is to act swiftly and efficiently to coordinate our aid on the ground so that this aid goes as quickly as possible to the Lebanese people," Macron said by adding that the offer of assistance included support for an impartial, credible and independent inquiry into the Aug. 4 blast, which has prompted some Lebanese to call for a revolt to topple their political leaders. The donor conference raised pledges worth nearly €253 million ($416 million) for immediate humanitarian relief.

But bottom line is: Lebanon’s problems can only be addressed if its political leaders place the country’s, and their own, long-term interests above short-term gains. That means an agreement to shoulder some of the losses stemming from the crisis and bringing in a government capable of envisioning and implementing an immediate stabilization program and a medium- to long-term recovery program. So far, however, these do not seem to be priorities for Lebanon’s political leadership.