The explosions that destroyed the Port of Beirut on August 4th are the most recent in a series of catastrophic events that have befallen Lebanon and its people. The latest count of casualties was over 135 killed and 5,000 injured at hospitals in the capital that have run out of space to receive more. Three hundred thousand others have also been made homeless. Rescue crews are still looking for missing persons under the rubble.
These explosions came as the country was approaching the proverbial abyss caused by a corrupt political system, one that has produced a failed state and ineffective institutions, an unscrupulous political and economic elite, and ever-deepening socioeconomic woes. But beyond these grievous and painful factors, the destruction of the port alone is a profound event that will have long-term consequences for the country and its economy and, most of all, its people. Recovery from this will take a very long time and cost dearly, two conditions that the Lebanese can ill afford.
Such a recovery will also have to address the endemic and prevalent malfeasance that has permeated Lebanon’s institutions––executive, legislative, Judicial, and economic and financial. News reports about what transpired at the port have pointed to well-known facts in the country’s official life: corruption, negligence, and carelessness that have hardly ever been met with the accountability measures required of a modern political system. On the day of the disaster, government and security agencies were absent from the scene of the explosions for hours, leaving journalists, observers, civilians, and others to speculate about what happened at Lebanon’s most strategic economic asset. The country’s Higher Military Council declared Beirut a stricken city and announced a state of emergency for two weeks. What is certain now is that domestic efforts and regional and international assistance will be urgently needed to help deal with the widespread destruction and devastation.
There is no question that the blasts at the Port of Beirut are the result of a serious laxity in both responsible supervision at the facility and vigilance to protect the neighborhood from unforeseen dangers. The explosions also present an example of the ineptitude of individuals usually hired on a sectarian basis without regard to their qualifications; such workers may not believe they are responsible for the general good because their positions are secure, therefore they do not fear accountability.
Nevertheless, this latest calamity is first and foremost reflective of the weak status of the Lebanese state. Although purportedly a collective of modern institutions set up and dedicated to serve the people of Lebanon, the state has failed miserably in fulfilling this mission. Many in the country also decry Hezbollah’s special status at the port, which it uses to its advantage without interference from the authorities; this only adds to the perception that the state has lost its position as a sovereign entity over all of its territory.
Indeed, it is how this state behaves and what it does that prompt or impede its bureaucrats and officials to perform their duties. Lebanon’s polity––and especially after the civil war of 1975-1990––is built around the idea of efforts toward mutual and constant compromise that, necessarily, require either half-measures to satisfy the basic needs of agreement or willful avoidance of disagreement lest discord and violence ensue. Such a state is unlikely to be able to demand full compliance with good governance from its officials or to exact sanctions when they fail. And this goes back squarely to the question of public accountability.
Repercussions from the explosions at the port will surely be profoundly detrimental to the economy and people of Lebanon. However, they will not lead to a change in how the state conducts its business unless Lebanon’s political elites are replaced or finally alter the way they understand governance and responsibility toward their citizens, expatriate workers, and refugees living in the country.