The Beirut Explosion Will Have a Lasting Impact on Lebanon

The explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4th continues to reverberate across Lebanon and the world. This catastrophic event is gradually changing the Lebanese political landscape, deepening the country’s economic crisis, and allowing the expansion of foreign intervention in Lebanon. In its aftermath, the situation in Lebanon is fluid and whatever potential scenario emerges, it will have a profound impact on the country.

The Lebanese people continue to cope with the explosion that destroyed most of the Beirut seafront area, killed more than 220 people with over 100 persons missing, injured more than 6,000, and left 300,000 homeless. All indications suggest that the explosion was the result of the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate recklessly stored for six years in a civilian port without any safety measures. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud estimated the losses in the capital at up to $15 billion, which intensifies the existing financial collapse and the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. To be sure, the overall effect cannot be underestimated, particularly as it plays out on internal Lebanese politics.

Post Explosion: Investigation and Aid

On the day of the explosion and before resigning on August 10, the Lebanese government formed an investigative committee chaired by Prime Minister Hassan Diab and including the defense, interior, and justice ministers as well as the commander of the armed forces, General Joseph Aoun, and key leaders of the country’s main security agencies. As the government investigation started, 19 public employees were arrested, primarily from the bureaucracy that manages the Beirut port and the customs authority. Hours before the cabinet’s resignation, the committee presented its report to the secretary of the council of ministers. The document was intended to facilitate the actual investigation undertaken by the judiciary. There have been calls to conduct an international investigation, given Lebanon’s abysmal record in any probe of governmental negligence and corruption, but these calls were rejected by both President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah.

Lebanese authorities have long been skeptical about international investigations and even more so this time around because of the degree of negligence and the web of corruption involved in the Beirut explosion across every level of the state apparatus. Lebanon’s ruling elites probably do not want to expose their failures in an international investigation. This should not come as a surprise.

Lebanon’s ruling elites probably do not want to expose their failures in an international investigation. This should not come as a surprise.

There are no indications, at least yet, that any Hezbollah weapons were stored at the site of the explosion. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah is concerned about growing public anger among members of his base if there is no transparency and accountability in the investigation, especially since there were also Hezbollah loyalists in the state security apparatus who knew that the ammonium nitrate was recklessly left in the Beirut port for six years. Hezbollah also does not want to see Nasrallah’s ally, President Aoun, further weakened in Lebanese politics since he is coming under public pressure to resign. In sum, both Hezbollah and the country’s ruling elites are under enormous pressure.

France has taken a stronger stance than the United States. President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut after the explosion and reprimanded the country’s political leaders, calling for a “new political order” in Lebanon. Macron implied that the negligence of Lebanese authorities was behind the explosion and called for “an impartial, credible and independent inquiry.” He warned that further action would be taken by Paris next month if reforms are not implemented, stating that he would not give “blank checks to a system that no longer has the trust of its people.” Macron noted that there would be “clear and transparent governance” to ensure international aid goes directly to the people affected by the explosion. With the United Nations on August 9th, the French president co-organized a videoconference to coordinate international aid to Lebanon; more than 30 international leaders and government officials attended and the initiative raised nearly $300 million.

US President Donald Trump, who called his Lebanese counterpart on the eve of the donor conference, was the only foreign leader who entertained the idea that an attack might have caused the Beirut explosion. However, the Pentagon pushed back against Trump’s claim. Defense Secretary Mark Esper initially considered the explosion an accident but later backtracked on his statement, arguing that the media was trying to create a rift between him and the president. Moreover, the Trump Administration did not put forth the idea of an international investigation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement: “we understand that the Government of Lebanon continues to investigate its cause and look forward to the outcome of those efforts.” General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., commander of US Central Command, echoed these remarks, saying that “we’re going to defer to and give the Lebanese government space to complete their investigation and reach their conclusions.” The White House has highlighted the need for “transparency, reform and accountability,” adding that Trump “called for calm in Lebanon and acknowledged the legitimate calls of peaceful protestors for transparency, reform, and accountability.” However, it is not yet clear whether there has been a shift to make reform and accountability high priorities on the Trump Administration’s agenda after the Beirut explosion.

It is not yet clear whether there has been a shift to make reform and accountability high priorities on the Trump Administration’s agenda after the Beirut explosion.

Iranian officials offered condolences to Lebanon without officially commenting on the cause of the explosion, even though Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called it a “tragedy.” Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Hossein Salami said that “all of our abilities will be mobilized to help the people of Lebanon.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi stated on August 10th that “the blast should not be used as an excuse for political aims … the cause of the blast should be investigated carefully,” but he did not elaborate on who should conduct the investigation. He also noted that “if America is honest about its assistance offer to Lebanon, they should lift sanctions.”

While Gulf countries offered aid, most of them did not comment on the causes of the explosion nor the nature of the investigation, except Saudi Arabia. During the international donors’ conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan called for a “transparent and independent investigation” and for “comprehensive and urgent political and economic reform to ensure that this terrible disaster will not occur again.” Moreover, he seemed to place blame on Hezbollah, stating that “the continued destructive hegemony of the terrorist organization Hezbollah worries us all, and we all know this organization’s history of using explosive materials and storing them among civilians in several Arab and European countries and in north and south America.” As expected, other foreign governments such as Russia, Turkey, and China did not comment on the investigation nor the call for accountability and reform. The Israeli government said it has “approached Lebanon through international defense and diplomatic channels to offer the Lebanese government medical humanitarian aid,” according to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Government Resignations

On August 10th, Hassan Diab’s government resigned. This might potentially lead to a caretaker cabinet in power for a protracted period of time. The ruling elites and Hezbollah had no option but to withdraw their support for Diab, who was forced to step down given the consecutive resignations by his ministers. Diab attempted a last maneuver by calling for an early parliamentary election that would change the country’s political dynamics, but this attempt failed. After the Beirut explosion, Lebanese politics is now back to square one, with the same names floated to serve as the next prime minister: former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations, Nawaf Salam, who is now serving as a judge on the International Court of Justice.

The resignation of Hassan Diab was inevitable starting from the first day of the explosion, but the question now is what will come next.

The resignation of Hassan Diab was inevitable starting from the first day of the explosion, but the question now is what will come next. Some parliamentarians have already resigned and there are calls for an early election. Ultimately, there is no way out of this national crisis without reshaping the political scene with transparent and fair parliamentary elections. This situation poses important questions: which government will organize these elections? How can the general vote take place in a devastated capital? On which electoral law will the elections be based? The protesters on the streets have the will to change, but it is not yet clear how they will be able to channel this will into political groups that can compete in the election with traditional political parties and feudal leaders. In addition, organizing an early election does not seem to have international support, at this stage at least.

While Lebanese protesters have clear reservations against Saad Hariri, who had to step down last October under public pressure, the country’s ruling elites want to see him back in power. Paris and Washington seem inclined to endorse Nawaf Salam because his reputation is not tarnished in Lebanese politics; however, he faces a Hezbollah veto due to the views and policies he presented when he served as Lebanon’s permanent representative to the United Nations. If Hariri were ultimately tapped, his preconditions might be to form a cabinet that excludes the influence of Hezbollah and of the former foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. No matter what scenario will unfold, the path toward cabinet formation will be problematic and difficult unless a clear consensus emerges around a candidate to become the next prime minister.

The foreign powers rivalry over Lebanon has long existed and will only intensify after the explosion.

The foreign powers rivalry over Lebanon has long existed and will only intensify after the explosion. As a failed state, Lebanon lacks the basic resources to begin reconstruction and recovery efforts, especially since it is already in financial collapse. Paris’s role in Lebanon represents the only remaining French influence in the region; this is why President Macron was making sure that a post Beirut explosion will not lead to a power vacuum. This tragedy is gradually changing the Lebanese political landscape and increasing foreign intervention, which might not necessarily benefit the Lebanese people—unless the international community firmly encourages the country to take a path of political and economic reforms.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here