AP Analysis: Will Beirut's blast be a catalyst for change?

BEIRUT (AP) — The massive explosion and devastation triggered by thousands of tons of chemicals improperly stored in Beirut’s port is the culmination of decades of corruption that has driven one of the Middle East's most spirited countries to ruin.

The staggering destruction, with losses in the billions of dollars, will compound Lebanon’s multiple humanitarian catastrophes. Its people are seething with rage as they are pushed into even more poverty and despair by an accident that appears to have been completely avoidable.

But it remains to be seen whether it will serve as the long-awaited catalyst to dislodge an entrenched political class responsible for years of graft and mismanagement. Even if it does end up being the spark for change, it will likely take years of instability and unrest, spurred by dismal economic conditions, to get there.

Lebanon’s rulers, many of them warlords and militia holdovers from the days of the 1975-90 civil war, have proven to be extremely resilient. They hang on to their seats from one election to the next, largely because of the country’s sectarian power-sharing system and an antiquated electoral law that allows them to behave with virtual impunity while guaranteeing their political survival.

The Lebanese people rose up many times before, including 15 years ago when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a truck bombing; in 2015's “You Stink” protest movement during the garbage-collection crisis; and most recently in October, at the onset of the economic crisis. Each time, they eventually became disillusioned and beset by divisions as political parties hijacked and co-opted their protests.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, said the interests of Lebanon's politicians were far too deeply entrenched in the system.

“Even though historically speaking, such national catastrophes or ruptures serve as a catalyst for transformative change, I am deeply skeptical about the governing and ruling elite in Lebanon instituting change on their own. This is delusional,” he said.

Some say this time could -- and should — be different.

The gigantic explosion that ripped through Beirut on Tuesday was the apparent result of an accident that ignited 2,750 tons of an ammonium nitrate stockpile that had been stored for six years in a seaside warehouse, apparently with the knowledge of port officials as well as political and judicial authorities. More than 135 people were killed and more than 5,000 injured. Many are still missing and around quarter of a million people are now without homes.

As the nation mourned, a collective feeling has taken hold that this time, its leaders must be held accountable for committing a crime and rendering the capital unlivable. On Thursday, the shock gave way to fury as Beirut residents realized the full scale of the disaster and scattered protests erupted.

“Hang them from the gallows in the streets,” someone etched in the layer of pulverized debris covering a wrecked car in a devastated street.

The pent-up emotions erupted when French President Emmanuel Macron came to Lebanon to show support, visiting the epicenter of the blast and then touring some of the worst hit neighborhoods. He was quickly accosted by anxious and emotional residents pleading with him to help free the nation from its rulers. France is the former colonial power in Lebanon and maintains historically good ties with the country.

Macron made it a point to say he was not here to support Lebanese leaders and would make sure that any assistance from France would go to the people. He reiterated that no financial assistance would be given to the government to help ease a deepening financial crisis without substantial reforms.

“There is a need to create a new political order in Lebanon,” Macron said after meeting with political leaders, calling for a complete overhaul of the system and urgent reforms in all sectors.

He did not address the steep challenges of doing this in a broken and divided country that's nearly bankrupt as a result of an unprecedented financial and economic crisis along with the coronavirus pandemic. At this point, the state is barely able to provide any electricity, collect garbage or provide basic security and food needs.

The scale of the national destruction is sure to further weaken Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government. It has struggled to implement any significant reforms since coming to power in January because of a lack of will on the part of political parties in ending the corruption from which they profit.

He has assigned an investigative committee that he said should submit its findings within a few days. But it is highly unlikely that any senior leaders will be punished. Instead, officials were shifting blame about who was responsible for the catastrophe.

“What was destroyed in 15 years of war, was re-destroyed in one second,” said Tony Sawaya, who heads an insurance brokerage firm. He had little to no hope that anything would change.

“Nothing will change. It will be business as usual,” he said, adding that all corrupt politicians are supported by their followers and the international community.

Others have called for a resumption of the “thawra” — Arabic for revolution.

Gerges said the main question is whether the Lebanese people will collectively rise up and say “enough is enough,” which would mean implementing a new electoral process, a new government and a new system of governance.

All those raise massive challenges.

Sustained mass protests must continue, Gerges said, even if it takes years to force out the elites and change the system.

“It’s a choice between death, or renewal through struggle,” he said.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Zeina Karam, the news director for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, has covered the Middle East since 1996. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/zkaram.