Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 60-61
The Gulf International Forum hosted an Aug. 12 online panel to address the situation in Lebanon since the horrific explosion in Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, which came on the heels of increasing coronavirus cases, an economic meltdown and protests demanding government reform.
Randa Slim, director of the Middle East Institute’s Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Initiative, stressed the need for international emergency humanitarian aid, as the blast destroyed wheat storage silos in the port, seriously threatening food security in the country.
Lebanon was already in serious economic straits, she pointed out. Its national currency has lost 80 percent of its value, unemployment is at least 30 percent and the poverty rate is 50 percent. “The tragedy exacerbates this economic crisis,” she said.
The failing economy drove protesters into the streets of Beirut last fall calling for government reforms. “Prior to the port tragedy, protesters were focusing primarily on economic reforms; now they are looking at the ruling elites as being corrupt,” Slim explained. “The tragedy changed these frames of reference. Now these elites are looked at as criminals because leaked documents since the explosion have shown that reports warning of the seriousness of this danger of large quantities of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut…went all the way up to the president. The leaked documents show that everyone knew and no one did anything. These people who have ruled the country since the end of the civil war now are seen as criminals.”
Kuwait University professor Abdullah Alshayji said the devastating blast “exposed all of the deficiencies and all of the problems of Lebanon head on.” He warned, “there is no light at the end of the tunnel…as long as factional politics, feudalism and warlords are controlling all of the power in Lebanon.” The country needs to change the electoral law and bring real change that people will embrace, he added.
Asked about the possibility of Lebanon now descending into conflict, Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC, said he doesn’t think anyone is interested in violence. “There has to be room for dialogue for the different political factions to come to an agreement,” he said. “I think Lebanon has a great opportunity right now to harness the power of its youth, the power of its intellectuals, the power of the people who know how to run governments and to be able to create a new political system that would be responsive to the Lebanese people and that would welcome again all of the Gulf countries to come there, all of the Arab world…and the international community.”