Brief Summary of the Situation in Lebanon after the Explosion that Shook Beirut
In the midst of a deep economic and social crisis, the Arab country saw its capital destroyed by a massive explosion that claimed the lives of more than 100 people. What happened?
Last Tuesday, August 4, the whole world watched in awe as a shock wave, the product of an explosion in the port of Beirut, swept houses and buildings, killing hundreds of people and injuring thousands more.
Initially reported as a detonation inside a fireworks warehouse, the explosion was seen in images as an orange mushroom that devoured several blocks of buildings, in the middle of what looked like an earthquake.
It was not until later in the afternoon that the Health Ministry reported more than 70 people dead and at least 3,000 injured in what it described as "the worst carnage the city has seen in more than a decade."
According to reports from journalists on the ground, the wounded were moving through the rubble to hospitals surrounded by the control of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Martyrs' Square, not far from the site of the explosion, filled with anger at what they immediately described as yet another gesture of the Lebanese government's negligence.
Since mid-2006, Lebanon has experienced a deep political crisis typical of governments in the region, where ideological and partisan fragmentation that left the country without a president at one point in 2007.
In a country where the Islamic – and often described as terrorist – group Hezbollah dominates much of the political dynamic, violence has been the order of the day.
In 2008 alone, more than 100 people were killed in clashes between the Islamic group and the opposition, and West Beirut has become no man's land.
According to the BBC, the origin of Hezbollah's presence in Lebanon dates back to the Israeli occupation of the territory in the early 1980s, where Iran helped form resistance groups.
After Israel withdrew in 2000, the group refused to disarm and strengthened its military wing, reaching parliament and gaining veto power in the cabinet.
Since then, it has been accused of being responsible for multiple acts of violence, including the assassination of Rafic Hariri, a business tycoon and former Prime Minister of Lebanon from 1992 to 1998, and again from 2000 to 2004, who was killed when a van exploded alongside his entourage in February 2005.
Although the signing of the Doha Agreement on May 21, 2008, ended the conflicts, the situation felt like a time bomb – almost literally.
In addition, Lebanon's geographical position has made it the recipient of more than one million Syrian and Palestinian refugees displaced from the surrounding conflicts, whose situation has been an aggravating factor in the internal political pacts.
The distribution of political power in Lebanon is little known internationally. As reported by The Economist in October 2019, the country's sectarian political system established after the 1989 Taif agreement, and which gives political authority to parties depending on their religious affiliation, has allowed for abuse and exploitation of positions of power.
Among 18 Islamic religious sects, 12 Christian, one Druze and one Jewish, power has always been concentrated in the former, without allowing for the fair representation of its citizens.
In October 2019, Lebanese civilians took to the streets, initially, to reject the government's decision to raise taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and calls through applications such as WhatsApp, which quickly became a rallying cry against the old system of government.
Between critical unemployment, endemic corruption, and the lack of separation of state powers, the country grew tired of living for decades without essential services or representation at the table.
Although Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from office, and although former Education Minister Hassan Diab has been charged with forming a new cabinet, protests have not abated.
Especially since Diab was appointed with the support of Hezbollah, a gesture considered by all as "more of the same."
Although many details of the August 4 explosion in Beirut's port are unknown, government officials reported that it was due to the concentration of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a component frequently used in the manufacture of fertilizers and bombs, according to the New York Times.
But the violent past of the government's religious wing makes many believe it has more to do with a way to control social unrest.
Although Hezbollah claimed it had nothing to do with the issue, citizens' anger at seeing their capital city destroyed has caused street protests to escalate, leading Diab to resign from office on Monday, August 10.
In a national address, Diab announced that his government was withdrawing after the explosion that he called a "disaster beyond measure," according to CNN.
Diab rebuked Lebanon's ruling political elite for fostering "an apparatus of corruption bigger than the state."
"We have fought valiantly and with dignity," he said, referring to members of his cabinet. "Between us and change is a big powerful barrier."
Diab compared Tuesday's explosion to an "earthquake that rocked the country," prompting his government to resign. "We have decided to stand with the people," he said.
Three cabinet ministers had already quit, along with seven members of parliament.