It’s been over a week since the ammonium nitrate blast in Beirut, Lebanon that killed at least 220 people, injured more than 5,000, and has left many civilians across the city homeless. The question of how the explosion occurred has left the Lebanese people demanding answers from an incompetent government. Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound generally used for fertilizing agricultural land and had been stored in a warehouse located by the port for six years, but for what reason? Two decades of a corrupt government, led by sectarian ruling factions in a post-civil war context, has led civilians to distrust Lebanese state officials. This has been exacerbated by the devastation caused by the blast. As a result, Lebanon’s cabinet resigned last Monday, thus creating an opportunity for the formation of a government representative of the Lebanese people.
Charlotte Karam is a social scientist at the American University of Beirut and has described the situation in Beirut as a “crisis layered upon multiple crises – an economic crisis, a political crisis, a health crisis.” A sustainable political future for Beirut means directly re-designing the structural arrangement of the country’s government that listens and supports the needs of civilians. The explosion is one of the largest industrial disasters linked to ammonium nitrate, which expresses the sheer incompetency of the government. Protests have been heightened in recent years due to an economic crisis in Lebanon, which was initiated by an announcement of a tax on the messaging service, WhatsApp. To ask civilians to contribute towards the economic crisis recovery – more of a result of corrupt practices by government officials – was the catalyst that spiralled the situation out of control leading to mass protests.
The catastrophic consequences of the blast resulting in a broken government might permit the opportunity for real political change. The immediate humanitarian response has been facilitated by non-governmental organizations, local volunteers, and international aid groups, which positions local communities – supported by international organizations – favourably, since power has been shifted to the people and their active engagement with the rebuilding of Beirut.
To rebuild the country’s fractured political system into one that is supportive of the people, direct economic support from international organisations must also be given to civil society groups in the coming months ahead, rather than towards government officials. Additionally, Hezbollah – the Shia Islamist political party based in Lebanon – holds considerable power in the aftermath of the government’s demise. In an Al Jazeera article by Rami G. Khouri, a sense of the party’s potential influence in the coming months is articulated. Khouri argues that we have “entered a new phase” where “the two most powerful actors have emerged as Hezbollah and the mass of uncoordinated but probably unstoppable protest movement.”
The Lebanese population will then have to navigate their desires alongside Hezbollah and their political interests. This is problematic since Hezbollah co-ordinates its strategies in parallel to Iran and Syria, which might deter impactful change for local Lebanese civilians. These complex circumstances indicate that the pathway to an authentic democracy will be difficult but the passion evident in Lebanon’s protests suggests that the people won’t stop until their struggle is addressed.
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