Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 32-35
Lebanese Wonder if Beirut Explosion Was Caused by Negligence or Graft
By Rana Sabbagh
AS AUTHORITIES are counting the dead and hospitals are struggling to treat survivors of the massive blast that ripped through Beirut on Aug. 4, a mourning population is wondering who is to blame for the disaster in their country that has been engulfed by ruling class corruption and negligence for decades.
The explosion on Tuesday evening at a Beirut port warehouse killed more than 200 people, injured 6,500 and left over 300,000 homeless. The blast sent a mushroom-shaped cloud into the sky, rattling windows and ripping off facades in a city still scared by the 1975-1990 civil war, the ongoing economic meltdown and a new surge in coronavirus infections.
Mayor Jamal Itani estimated the damage to be over U.S. $5 billion and said the city looked like a war zone. He was seen crying on TV after inspecting the mass devastation.
A surgeon at the emergency department of the American University of Beirut Medical Center told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) his teams treated over 400 victims who mostly suffered from burns and glass shrapnel injuries.
“We have not seen such a thing even at the worst attacks suffered during the Lebanese civil war when I started my career,” he said.
The distressed public is now asking who owns the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate and who allowed it to be stored for six years in a warehouse in the middle of the densely populated capital without proper safety measures.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab has ordered an investigation and in a government statement said that authorities have put “those in charge of storage and security at the port since 2014 under house arrest until the investigation is concluded.”
Julien Courson, executive director of the Lebanese Transparency Association, told OCCRP that authorities have issued conflicting statements and called for a proper probe that would reveal whether negligence or corruption were to blame for the carnage.
“Surely there are suspicions, and what could help is an open and transparent investigation, supported by independent technical experts who would be able to understand what happened,” he said.
The ammonium nitrate reportedly arrived at the Beirut port in late 2013 when a Moldova-flagged ship, the MV Rhosus, ran into technical trouble while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique with 2,750 tons of the chemical on board. Lebanese authorities did not allow the dangerous cargo to leave on a defective ship which was allegedly abandoned by its owner. The crew was eventually repatriated and the ammonium nitrate was moved to a port warehouse awaiting auctioning or proper disposal.
According to Moldova’s Naval Agency, the Rhosus was owned by the Panama-based company Briarwood Corporation, and chartered by a Marshall Islands company, Teto Shipping Limited.
Both are registered in secrecy jurisdictions that hide companies’ true owners, but media reports and one Greek maritime services company that had previously dealt with Teto Shipping identified the manager of the Marshall Islands company as Igor Grechushkin, who is reportedly a Russian resident of Cyprus. Grechushkin hung up when an OCCRP reporter called him on the phone. The Cyprus Shipping Council told OCCRP they never heard of Grechushkin or his company.
Back in Beirut, local websites are circulating two documents indicating that Lebanese Customs had asked the court every year from 2014 to 2017 to order the “concerned maritime agency”—which could be the port warehouse—to re-export the stored cargo or allow its sale to a local private company, Lebanese Explosives Co. SARL (Majid Shammas & Co).
None of the involved authorities that now keep blaming each other had made any move to eliminate the dangerous chemical from the port or secure it properly.
Most Lebanese have lost confidence in the government and the judicial system a long time ago. The country is the 137th least corrupt nation out of 180 countries, according to the “2019 Corruption Perceptions Index” reported by Transparency International, and many do not believe that justice will ever be served by an earthly court.
“God, please punish all those who are behind this disaster,” Karimah Jacque, a mother of three who lives near the port, appealed as she spoke to OCCRP.
Rana Sabbagh co-founded Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism in 2006, when a network of muckraking journalists in the region seemed like an impossible dream. She is now Middle East and North Africa editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, where this was first published on Aug. 5.
Expect Huge Political Aftershocks from The Beirut Explosion
By Rami G. Khouri
THE MASSIVE EXPLOSION in Beirut that devastated many parts of the city is a tale with three distinct but linked parts, about the past, the present and the future. The past is about how this could happen, given that for the last six years the government knew about the thousands of kilos of dangerous ammonium nitrate stored in the port, and did nothing about it.
The present is about how the immediate reconstruction and humanitarian aid processes will impact the current government that has very little domestic or international credibility.
The third, and most important in the long run, is about whether in the future the Lebanese people’s heightened anger with their government, for subjecting them to yet another massive source of sustained suffering, will translate into political action that removes the government and starts to reform the entire political-economic structures of the country.
These three dimensions also relate to the lives of several hundred million civilians across the Arab region, who suffer the consequences of their own cruel regimes, of which Lebanon is only the most dramatic, painful and recent example. Lebanon is instructive because it is one of a handful of Arab countries where tens of thousands of citizens are out in the streets almost daily demonstrating peacefully against their governments for what they see as their mistreatment by those governments.
The Beirut port explosion is a consequence of the cumulative incompetence, corruption, lassitude, amateurism and uncaring attitude by successive Lebanese governments, going back two decades, which has brought the Lebanese people to a point of majority pauperization and desperation. Ordinary citizens don’t have enough clean water. They don’t have electricity. They don’t have good new jobs. They don’t have reasonably priced food. They cannot get their own money from the banks. Education quality is declining. Trash is not properly collected or disposed of. Environmental conditions deteriorate across the land. Their currency has collapsed. The future is bleak for all, other than the very wealthy.
Every dimension of life in Lebanon has declined, steadily and uninterruptedly, for the last 20 years. But perhaps the worst aspect of this, in the citizen’s eyes, is that the government does not seem to care, or to do anything to fix the situation, as in most Arab countries. The Beirut port explosion is the most catastrophic example of how an uncaring, inattentive and criminally negligent government operates, because the ruling oligarchic power structure circles the wagons and protects itself against angrier and angrier citizens in the street.
Because nobody in power did anything about the ammonium nitrate in the Beirut port, as has been the case with water, garbage, electricity and the economy, the political aftershocks are likely to be the most significant dimension of this incident. These will happen only after some time, as the country absorbs the psychological and physical shocks of the explosion, and deals with the massive humanitarian suffering.
The Lebanese people—like the Algerians, Sudanese, Iraqis and others—are actively focused on understanding how they can demonstrate and mobilize politically in order to achieve a common goal: to recreate a legitimate, credible, effective and humanistic government system that treats its own citizens as human beings and not as animals without rights, without feelings, without voice.
This populist force across the entire region has been out in the streets demonstrating now for a decade. Since the 2010-’11 uprisings, Arab men and women have signaled the intensity of the political deficiencies and the populist quest for dignity in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Sudan, Algeria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Mauritania and Lebanon.
A core problem that must be resolved is how to overcome the mistrust of power that defines all Arab countries experiencing uprisings. The Lebanese people certainly don’t trust their government anymore, because they’ve suffered the physical and emotional consequences of its cruelty and deficiencies over the last 20 years. That’s why most Lebanese demand an independent international investigation to find out how the port explosion happened and who should be held accountable.
Similarly, many also ask that international humanitarian aid should not go to the Lebanese government, but rather to non-governmental organizations or international groups who can be trusted not to steal the money. When the minister of justice went to inspect one badly damaged area, she was hounded out of the neighborhood with shouts of “resign!” and “revolution”!
These are signs from the Lebanese citizens of why, when they march in protests, they call for the departure of all the governing elite, not just one or two bad apples. This is similarly the case in the protests in Iraq and Algeria, where disgruntled and dehumanized citizens demand the removal of the entire governing elite, and its replacement with a more participatory, accountable and rule-of-law-based system.
This is the critical issue now in Lebanon—the transition from the humanitarian catastrophe of the explosion to a political reconfiguration of the political system. Yet, Arab citizens marching in the streets largely have not been able to remove their governments by popular will in the last 30 years. So the region continues to be ruled by autocratic, authoritarian and increasingly militarized regimes, whose policies have led to around 75 percent of all Arabs being poor or vulnerable.
The explosion destroyed much of Beirut. It might soon destroy the old, heartless political system that allowed it to happen.
Rami G. Khouri is journalist-in-residence and Director of Global Engagement at the American University of Beirut, a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an executive board member of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies. He tweets @ramikhouri Copyright ©2020 Rami G. Khouri. Distributed by Agence Global.
Clash of the “Titans” in Lebanon
By Selim Mawad
BEYOND THE SHADOW of a doubt, the two so-called major Middle Eastern protagonists, Israel and Hezbollah, and respectively behind them the United States of Trump and the Islamic Republic of Khamenei, are still absorbing the reverberations of Beirut’s catastrophic explosion that destroyed large parts of the city and with it a social fabric, on Aug. 4, 2020.
Minutes after the blast, a few reports in the Israeli media blamed Binyamin Netanyahu for the Beirut explosion until he vociferously denied it a few hours later. At the same time, Hezbollah, applying its common practice of self-containment, remained silent.
A sense of horror reigned not only over Beirut but over the whole of Lebanon and the Middle East. This sense of terror was driven by speculation and rumor that Israel targeted an arms warehouse belonging to Hezbollah at the port. The potential for retaliation after the blast resonated over many decision-making capitals. A few days later, the rumors that the explosion was the result of an Israeli strike lost ground and was replaced by new speculation that the 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate belonged to Hezbollah and was stored for military reasons. As a result, until now there is a politically driven narrative incriminating Hezbollah for the blast in the devastated Christian-majority neighborhoods.
With its colonial ties to Lebanon, France’s President Emmanuel Macron was the first leader to fly to Beirut. He tried to convince the Lebanese that his mission was one of solidarity and humanitarian aid, assuring them that France’s aid would go directly to the people. Meanwhile, Macron repeated the warning, sent earlier by the international community to the Lebanese corrupt political elite, of the necessity of creating a new political reality. Less than a month earlier, on July 8, Macron visited Lebanon after the pro-Hezbollah cabinet resigned under the pressure of the protesters in Beirut. The day before his arrival, the majority of the existing political elite consensually nominated a new prime minister with the intention of forming a cabinet of technocrats in a record time.
Before the explosion, Lebanon was crushed by an economic meltdown and the political crisis that had festered for years as a result of a pandemic of corruption and a dysfunctional sectarian governance system. The unified cataclysm of the street, known as the “October 17th Revolution,” caused the government to take notice. The main slogan, “All of them means all of them—Kouloun Ya’ni Kouloun,” in reference to the political elite, echoed in the streets of Lebanon in October and only became louder and angrier after the blast.
After Macron’s visits, many of the civil society movements began calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah and went as far as to raise a banner with a new slogan, “Beirut—an Arms Free City.” Such a demand resonates with the Western agenda and that is no surprise; most of Lebanese civil society or politico-civil movements have always orbited within the Western sphere. Most Lebanese non-governmental organizations are supported by Western funding, particularly from the U.S. and its different governmental and non-governmental agencies.
The Lebanese economy has been severely restricted by U.S. and international sanctions directed at Hezbollah/Iran in Lebanon and Syria. The COVID-forced closure sent Lebanon into hyper-inflation and the restrictions on cashflow left citizens unable to access the money in their accounts. For months, Lebanese officials had been in complex negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue from their default complicated by the reforms required by the IMF.
Macron’s public call for reforms during his visits were not new, but his agreement to have Hezbollah representatives present during his meetings and his statements describing Hezbollah as a legitimate political party—elected by the people and worthy of a seat at the table—were new. That contradicted the American agenda for Lebanon and its goal of eliminating Hezbollah from the Lebanese and regional political scene. Unlike Macron, David Schenker, the American assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, limited his meetings to opposition leaders. The Lebanese are left to wonder if France is willing to oppose the U.S. for the sake of Lebanon or is Macron just benefiting from the pause America is taking until the November presidential election?
Macron’s call for a “new order” is also in conflict with Turkey’s ambitions in the region. Thus, it was no surprise that Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not far behind Macron, as he sought to ensure Turkey and its allies were part of the conversation. In his talks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose ruling coalition includes Hezbollah, Erdogan promised to rebuild the port, provide humanitarian aid and give Turkish citizenship to Lebanese of Turkish or Turkmen origin.
Lebanon has been and still is a gateway for many foreign players to safeguard their geopolitical, economic and strategic interests in the region.
It is becoming obvious that the U.S. is trying to put a Hezbollah-free new cabinet in place in order to manage the crisis and to transition Lebanon into early elections to implement “needed” reform before lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Lebanon. This has also been Israel’s goal since 2006. So far, while approving the proposed French roadmap, including a lower representation in the new cabinet, Hezbollah has refused calls for early elections.
With anger growing toward Hezbollah after the Beirut blast, the Iranian-backed party will never yield to early elections. It seems willing to call on its supporters to secure its presence within the Lebanese political web and challenge Western pressure, as it did in 2008 causing armed clashes in the streets of Beirut to prove its point. However, using its muscle on the streets this time, given the growing polarization over the past 15 years, will definitely lead to violence. The only winner will be the heavily armed Iranian-backed Hezbollah, unless the U.S. and Israel dive into battle directly.
The U.S. and its allies on one hand and France lately on another must be cautious while dealing with the intricate Lebanese quagmire since any false step could unleash one of the “two Titans.” Should Hezbollah be pressured to revert to local violence in an attempt to stay in power, not only Beirut will be wounded but the whole country will bleed. Should Hezbollah be pressured to leave the political establishment, it will have more reason to retaliate against Israel than just to avenge its repeated strikes against its military cadres in Syria.
Most probably Israel is not behind Beirut’s blast and if a transparent investigation is launched and concluded, the rumors about Hezbollah having arms stored at the harbor may be put to rest. What is sure is that both “Titans,” Israel and Hezbollah, and the powers behind them, are carefully considering the pros and cons of their potential clash. The blast in Beirut serves as a warning against unleashing another lethal clash. It also serves as an opening that could be used by the West to provide economic and humanitarian aid to rescue Lebanon and turn its citizens against the pro-Iranian players.
It is becoming apparent that the French initiative is crafted in a way to extend the expiry date of the truce between the two “Titans” until after U.S. elections. The explosion was the exclamation point on the failure of the Lebanese political system, but could also be the beginning of the end of Hezbollah’s legacy of pushing back against Israel.
Selim Mawad is a political activist living in Beirut, Lebanon.
Lebanese Americans Help Organize Relief
WITHIN 24 HOURS of the explosion in Beirut, the American Task Force on Lebanon (ATFL) began outreach efforts to Congress, the Trump administration and humanitarian organizations to get immediate humanitarian relief to the Lebanese people. They helped organize airlifts of medical supplies with more than 50 organizations, including Direct Relief, the Afya Foundation, ANERA, the Ghassan and Manal Saab Foundation, the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP) and others.
Nearly 100 tons of essential medicines and supplies arrived Aug. 24 in Beirut on a plane donated by FedEx. The shipment is a people-to-people exchange, a gift from the American people to the Lebanese. It is destined for the hospitals, critical care centers, and care providers attending to the communities in Beirut who were most affected by the shocking explosions of Aug. 4. The shipment contained requested essential medicines and personal protective equipment worth in excess of $13 million which will help relieve the strain on Beirut’s healthcare facilities. This shipment included 131 pallets of high-value medicines donated by Direct Relief as well as 96 pallets from other sources.
ATFL President Edward Gabriel said, “This effort represents the love that we Lebanese Americans and those who care about Lebanon have for that special country. Manal Saab has been instrumental in facilitating this campaign, and we are grateful for her partnership. We also want to thank the Clinton Foundation and Rep. Donna Shalala for their key support early in the campaign.”
More airlifts are being planned to help the Lebanese people. For both monetary and medical supply donations, please consider donating through the Lebanon Relief Project. For more information, contact Lebanon Relief Project coordinators Jean AbiNader ([email protected]) and Rashal Baz Zureikat ([email protected]) or visit www.LebanonReliefProject.com.