Who Destroyed Beirut?

August 7, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: LebanonBeirutWarExplosionPolitics

Who Destroyed Beirut?

The anger that will follow makes concrete, systemic changes in government possible, of the sort that Lebanon has needed for its entire history.


It was, without question, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. On the evening of August 4, a fire in the Port of Beirut spread to Hangar 12, which contained a large cargo of ammonium nitrate fertilizer confiscated from a derelict Moldovan ship six years earlier. Ammonium nitrate infamously doubles as a cheap explosive; the IRA used the compound extensively in Northern Ireland, and it was the weapon of choice for Timothy McVeigh in his 1995 terrorist attack against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh’s truck bomb, however, only contained two tons of the fertilizer. The Beirut warehouse held nearly three thousand. 

The resulting explosion was felt on Cyprus, some 150 miles off the Levantine coast. Downtown Beirut was flattened by the blast. At least a hundred people lost their lives, thousands were wounded, and more than a quarter-million have been left homeless. The port, which brought in sixty percent of Lebanon’s imports, has been virtually leveled. Critically, eighty-five percent of the country’s grain supply was vaporized, leading to fears of famine on the horizon. 


The explosion is all the more tragic because it was repeatedly predicted by port officials. As recently as January, Lebanese Customs wrote to the judiciary, asking for a court order to dispose of the ammonium nitrate and warning that, left in place, it could “blow up all of Beirut”—the latest, and most urgent, in a string of unanswered letters dating back to 2014. 

Predictable rage followed this disclosure, and Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab immediately arranged for an inquiry to find responsibility for the accident. It is unlikely to do so. Certainly, a proximate cause will be found for the spark that lit the fire, and a handful of low-level bureaucrats will be thrown in jail for some minor oversight. (On a small scale, this is already happening; several port officials have been put under house arrest.) But the real culprits—government mismanagement, systemic corruption, and a pervasive, top-to-bottom disregard for the rule of law—will in all likelihood remain at large for the foreseeable future. 

In a country with a functional government, the officials’ repeated frantic warnings might have been acted on. Lebanon is not such a country. Though it is the most ethnically diverse nation in the Middle East, it has remained deeply divided along religious lines since its foundation. The system of proportional representation established at Lebanon’s independence failed to keep pace with its demographic change, leading to a brutal, decade-long sectarian civil war from which the country’s infrastructure was never fully repaired. Though the country made some recovery during the 2000s, a pileup of political and economic crises have since weakened the central government to the verge of collapse. Syrian refugees have stretched state resources; a 2015 garbage crisis in Beirut remains unresolved; the Lebanese pound lost 80 percent of its value between 2019 and 2020; public debt has soared to 170 percent of GDP; protests in October 2019 led to the downfall of the previous prime minister; the country defaulted on its obligations in March 2020; additionally, the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and lockdown has hurt all Lebanese and stretched the nation’s already-underfunded healthcare system to its breaking point. In Beirut, once the “Paris of the Middle East,” one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and 30 percent are unemployed. Against this deluge of problems, any vague warnings about the contents of a warehouse on the docks were probably not treated with great urgency. 

One of the reasons that Lebanon’s crises are so intractable is a pervasive culture of corruption at all levels of government. Perhaps there is no better example of this malaise than at the Port of Beirut itself. Before its recent annihilation, the port was described by locals as “the cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” in reference to the vast corruption—tax evasion, smuggling, and black-market sales—that took place there. Former Public Works and Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi described a complicated network of smuggling at the port, relying on many intermediaries and bribes at all levels of its operation. In total, Aridi argued, this cost the port as much as $1 billion in lost tariff revenue each year. 

The port’s mismanagement is a microcosm of the larger Lebanese political class, which is divided by religious sects and foreign patrons—either leaning towards the West or towards Syria—but seemingly united in its tacit acceptance of the steadily worsening status quo and disregard for the well-being of ordinary Lebanese. Political maneuvering has driven the government from being pro-Damascus to pro-Washington and back, but it has remained as doggedly ineffective as ever. When the government neglects to govern, private organizations such as Hezbollah fill the gap they leave behind. Hezbollah is classified by the United States as a terrorist group, but it also functions as a social services organization, providing food and medical care to poor Lebanese where the government does not. 

It is a very, very small consolation that the explosion seems to have been an accident rather than a planned attack. Of course, in a region rife with bombings—to which Lebanon, unfortunately, is no stranger—it seems possible to many that the port’s explosion was more than an accident. Out of habit, a few perennial anti-Zionists accused Israel of detonating the supply. There are rumors that Hezbollah—which has a clear vested interest in keeping a hoard of explosives within reach, as well as known connections to smuggling at the port—might have been part of the reason that the ammonium nitrate never left Hangar 12. Out of nowhere, President Donald Trump claimed that his generals had told him it was a deliberate attack, an assertion that was (to no one’s surprise) contradicted by those generals shortly afterward. 

Conspiracy theories aside, the inquiry will probably return with the verdict that the explosion was an accident rather than a bombing. This makes it more difficult to blame the tragedy on any one faction. Paradoxically, this might do more to ensure that it is not repeated. An explosion caused by terrorists can be safely blamed on terrorists; an explosion caused by corruption and incompetence must be blamed on the source of that corruption and incompetence. No faction within the ruling class destroyed Beirut; the ruling class as a whole destroyed Beirut, as they have slowly been in the process of doing for the past decade. The anger that will follow makes concrete, systemic changes in government possible, of the sort that Lebanon has needed for its entire history. 

In 2005, minutes away from the Port of Beirut, a smaller explosion—a Hezbollah-planted car bomb—took the life of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This assassination led to the Cedar Revolution, a peaceful uprising that drove the pro-Syrian leadership from power and sent the Syrian troops occupying Lebanon home. Though Syrian influence soon returned, the Cedar Revolution set a precedent for a peaceful, effective uprising. If the Lebanese of today can repeat the events of 2005 on a larger scale, then the new Beirut could look very different when it is rebuilt. 

Trevor Filseth is an editorial intern for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters