Lebanese Civil Society Leads The Way In Beirut’s Streets

An explosion ripped through the heart of Beirut on August 4th, marking the start of a harrowing episode in the collective history of the Lebanese people, leaving more than 200 dead, thousands with severe injuries, and more than 250,000 homeless. A storage of 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, left at the port for over 6 years with government knowledge – was found to have caused the explosion. The Red Cross led the recovery efforts, alongside citizens from other cities, assisting in the distribution of food, clean water and COVID-19 protection, in the hopes of beginning a citizen-led recovery. The absence of army and police in the post-crisis recovery exposed the state’s meagre response, acknowledged by the (now) former Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, who resigned just a week later. 

The disastrous effects of prevalent state corruption, slowly eroding the functioning of the Lebanese state – from grassroots law enforcement to the nation’s highest office – reflects a clear and harsh lesson from the past month. This perhaps summarizes an unfortunate political arrangement the Lebanese people are all too familiar with; Hassan Diab (former Prime Minister) scolded the state before his resignation, asserting that “the blast was a result of endemic corruption in the heart of our nation.”

Marwad Atasi, founder of an independent medical initiative established in the days after the blast, condensed the historical relationship between the Lebanese people and the state, saying “our solidarity is our only source of hope; we never intend to depend on the state here. We will continue to heal our own wounds.” More so, France – having been entangled with the Lebanese people since post-WW1 colonial rule – expressed the “priority of unconditional aid and support for the population, explicitly circumventing state channels,” as stated by the French President, Emannuel Macron. 

The existing political backdrop acts as an extension of the civilian-centred history of Lebanon, merely reimagined in prolonged state incompetency to remove explosive materials from the main port, to a deeply citizen led recovery. The centre of this sour narrative is the nation’s classification as a “hybrid regime” – or an incomplete transition from authoritarianism to democracy, an intrinsic fracture resulting in state dysfunction. For example, failure to remove ammonium nitrate from the port despite port authorities pressuring politicians over a period of 7 years, alongside stern clamp-down on peaceful protestors amidst a collapsing city, lamenting the government’s prolonged incompetence. 

The explosion functions as an apt metaphor of the appearingly incessant friction between civil society and the state, hell bent on its commitment to sectarianism, for example, selecting government and private sector officials based on local ethnic demographics, disregarding individual competency and merit. Historic civil tensions have been building up for decades and have certainly cemented their presence in the national psyche. For example, an average of 250 civil society organisations were created every year in the 90s post civil-war, with similar levels in both the post-2006 Israeli conflict period and the 2011 Syrian refugee crisis. 

Perhaps the current situation demands more from the Lebanese people than ever before; the 7 months of the year preceding the explosion saw an 80% drop in the value of the currency against the dollar, increasing inequalities, alongside a steep increase in domestic inflation/consumer prices and COVID-19 cases, challenging the nation’s already fragile healthcare system. The Lebanese people face a task which may seem insurmountable – no less a crisis sharply intensified by its own government – but the people have a history of pulling through, having managed to persevere through 7 existential threats during its long 5,000 year history.

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