A Blast from the Past: Lebanon

On 4th August 2020, an explosion in Beirut shocked the world. Videos of the devastating blast surfaced on the Internet, with people left appalled at the sight of the disturbing image. More than 200 people were killed and about 5,000 injured, not to mention the wide-scale destruction of property and livelihood. The reason for the blast is said to be the triggering of explosive material left at a portside in the capital, which reeks of negligence. But Lebanon, a country in the Middle East, is no stranger to malfeasance. For years, it has been plagued by corruption, government mismanagement and unemployment which point towards a sustained political and economic crisis. The blast has brought to the forefront what has been simmering for decades. 

The Lebanese political government was organised along religious and sectarian lines, with all prominent communities given a share of official power. The President would be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker a Shia Muslim. In the Parliament, the seats for Christians and Muslims were divided in a ratio of 6:5, in favour of the former. In 1975, growing insecurity amongst these factions and demographic tensions resulted in the Civil War, which was arguably the apex of discord. Players included a coalition of Arab nationalist, Muslim and Palestinian forces fighting against the Maronite Christians, and other countries such as Israel and Syria who later became involved. In 1989, the long-standing issue was resolved when Muslims were given increased representation, ending the imbalance in power. This was the Taif Agreement, which also prompted ‘the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country’ and ordered the ‘disarmament of all national and non-national militias in Lebanon, except for Hezbollah’. 

The Taif Accords marked the second stage of Lebanese history: the Second Republic. With the appointment of Rafiq al-Hariri as Prime Minister, the country ventured towards economic and political success, though short-lived. The government was still sectarian in nature. In 2005, Hezbollah entered government after the assassination of al-Hariri. Subsequently, in 2006, it entered Israel and invoked tensions which resulted in a 34-day military conflict. Tensions continued when in 2009, Saad al-Hariri entered the government with Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Druze community, and backed Hezbollah, tilting the balance in the Muslims’ favour. 

Tensions peaked in 2016, when the government taxed the use of WhatsApp and other social media apps to raise revenue. This enraged the citizens and provided a catalyst to their suppressed anger. The protestors took to the streets to dissent against corruption, high unemployment rates, debt, poverty and the lack of basic services. They demanded a reformation of the political system, and the resignation of Saad al-Hariri and his unity government. After all, Lebanon had seen it all – from political dysfunction, foreign invasions, refugee crises, civil wars, an assassination, mass protests, border tensions and corruption, to the government needing to seek help from other countries to handle a wildfire

Amidst these political tensions was also economic instability. After the Civil War, Lebanon took on huge amounts of debt to rebuild its economy and pay off its bills. The Lebanese economy is service-based, and relies mostly on imports to meet its domestic consumption needs. For years, the pound has been pegged to the US dollar, which was done to prevent inflation during the civil war time. Capital is thus spent ensuring this fixed exchange rate rather than boosting the economy. The banks and interest rates have also been equated to a giant Ponzi scheme – the source of dollars was capital invested by its diaspora or other willing investors. To attract said investors, banks offered high interest rates which could only be sustained by more deposits at even higher rates. This policy fell through when investors suspected losses and cut their investment. The situation was further aggravated in 2014 due to the Syrian War, political turmoil in the region and a fall in oil prices.

Ever since, the Lebanese pound has lost two-thirds of its value. In 2019, banks started limiting withdrawals and cash transfers abroad. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown, this has become the worst economic crisis in the history of Lebanon. The currency crash has unleashed horror: the gap between the official pound value and the black market value is ever-rising, food prices are rocketing and more and more people are falling below the poverty line. The country defaulted on its debt for the first time in March, failing to pay back a $1.2 billion foreign bonds. The Lebanese government had approached the IMF for a loan with a proposed recovery plan earlier this year, but it invoked protests within the banking association of the country on the grounds that it ‘would further destroy confidence in Lebanon’.People are now questioning the government more than ever – the huge amounts of ammonium nitrate was essentially a time-bomb waiting to blow up. How can a government be so negligent as to allow explosive material to be held at a portside for over 6 years? Amidst the huge outcry this incident has caused, the Lebanese government submitted its resignation. However, we cannot neglect the urgent need of reform the country’s government is in. For starters, it should end the sectarian power-play and take decisive steps to ensure transparency. It should also work towards restructuring its economy to abate the economic crisis. Now is the time for change. If not, Lebanon may fall deeper in this pit and struggle to recover ever again.

Karishni Puri is a second year student at Ashoka University

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