When 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate left in Beirut’s port exploded last week, a three-year-old girl named Alexandra Najjar was torn from her mother’s arms as they ran inside from their balcony. In the same instant, everything in the apartment was flying through the air — doors, window frames, shards of glass, the air-conditioning unit, the family’s piano — and something hit the little girl. She died later from her wounds and on Lebanese social media she has become the ‘Angel of Beirut’, a symbol of the innocent people ‘murdered’ by their government’s negligence and incompetence, as her father, Paul, put it. He gave a restrained and dignified interview to local television, refusing to call her a ‘martyr’, a word local politicians would have used about her had she, more conveniently, been killed by some outside enemy (Israel would be best). Instead, she was simply a ‘victim’.
A photograph shows Alexandra on her father’s shoulders, with curly hair and pink dungaree-shorts, waving a Lebanese flag. This was at one of Lebanon’s many anti-government protests. Addressing the political class now, her father said: ‘You are all criminals… You killed us in our homes… a place where I thought I could keep my family safe.’ The explosion had not killed Christians, Muslims, or members of this party or that, he said, just Lebanese. And now the Lebanese had to unite to overthrow the old, corrupt system. ‘Please, enough. We have to stand together. We have to change things, for Alexou — for every child to live in the country we wish we could have.’
The Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab and his entire cabinet resigned this week, so you might think that Paul Najjar had won. But power in Lebanon lies elsewhere than the succession of usually bland and forgettable government ministers. A rich and well-connected Lebanese friend told me: ‘The same motherfucking gangsters are still in charge. Nothing will change until they are gone.’ He listed the geriatric leaders from the civil war or their heirs, all household names in Lebanon: one a notorious war criminal, another a massive embezzler of state funds, a third an obscenely rich but credulous fool, and so on. But as Diab said in his resignation speech, corruption in Lebanon is everywhere, not just at the top. ‘This crime,’ he said of the explosion, was the result of corruption that was ‘bigger than the state’.
Before making that speech, Diab froze the bank accounts of 20 officials overseeing the port and said that Lebanon’s strict banking secrecy laws would no longer apply to them. Exactly what they have (allegedly) squirreled away over the years may now be made public, the amounts easily compared with their official salaries. This was an extra-ordinary thing to do in the political culture of Lebanon. Generations of politicians from Lebanon’s successive governments, the permanent administration of generals and security chiefs, and the bureaucrats in their jobs because they’re someone’s cousin or brother will all be sweating, wondering if they are next. This, presumably, is why Diab did not telegraph his intentions, changing the rules at a stroke, through the courts instead of through parliament.
How does ‘corruption’ cause an explosion that killed more than 200 people, injured some 6,000, and made 300,000 people homeless, laying waste to a swath of Beirut? Over six years of failure and inaction, thousands of tons of a dangerous material were allowed to slowly decompose in one of the port’s warehouses, turning into an immense bomb. The officials running the Port of Beirut say they tried to sound the alarm but were ignored by the government. Diab says the officials were too busy amassing private fortunes to do their jobs. According to one account, the port authority is run by bureaucrats loyal to the (Sunni) former prime minister, Saad Hariri; customs controlled by the (Christian) president Michel Aoun’s people. The Lebanese government was in overall charge but couldn’t fire anyone. Such a person would answer only to the sectarian leaders or former warlords protecting them. It’s the same across the whole of the Lebanese bureaucracy.
Any account of this would not be complete without mentioning Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and Lebanon’s state-within-a-state. Saad Hariri’s brother, Bahaa, said it was ‘crystal clear’ that the port, the warehouse and the ammonium nitrate were all under Hezbollah’s control. ‘Nothing that goes in and out of the port, or the airport, does so without them knowing. Nothing. Their decision to put it there in the middle of a city of two million people was an utter disaster.’ With Lebanese chanting ‘Rig the nooses’, it’s not surprising that the political class should try to blame each other. But Hariri was right, the real power in the Port of Beirut was Hezbollah, whoever was nominally in charge. Did they want to keep the ammonium nitrate there in reserve for use in attacks outside Lebanon? They have used it for bomb-making many times before. The Israeli media speculated that some of the 2,750 tons in the port warehouse might have been marked for use in Israel or against Jewish targets around the world.
Hezbollah has kept largely silent, calling for ‘Lebanese unity’ in response to the explosion. That call was echoed by the Iranian media, which also criticized what it called the ‘aid’ (their inverted commas) sent by the British government, the Royal Navy leading the way. For some, the tragedy in Beirut will be the push the West needs to re-enter the Middle East, reducing Hezbollah’s influence and Iran’s. The chairman of the Defence Select Committee in the UK parliament, Tobias Ellwood, told The Spectator last week that Britain should ‘nudge’ America into ‘repairing the vacuum’ left by a ‘lack of western leadership and resolve’ in the Middle East.
Lebanon has traditionally been a graveyard for such aspirations. Hezbollah has been able to count on perhaps 40 percent of the population who are behind it. A British gunboat and a few million dollars worth of aid won’t change that, desperately needed and gratefully received though the aid might be. One problem is that anything that helps Lebanon recover might also help Hezbollah. But Tom Fletcher, a former British ambassador in Beirut, told me he thought the opposite was true: ‘If you don’t help Lebanon at all, then Hezbollah becomes stronger.’ The first task would be to ensure that the international aid wasn’t stolen. Ideally, he said, there should be an international co-ordinator for aid — with a Lebanese in charge of the relief effort. Fletcher wouldn’t speculate on names but one good pick might be the former interior minister Ziyad Baroud, a man with such integrity that he still drives around in a battered old car, despite having held high office in Lebanon.
Like me, Fletcher had never seen such anger or despair in Beirut. The port explosion seemed like a final blow. The country’s economy was already on the point of collapse last year. Then came the pandemic. The government has defaulted on its international debt; the currency has lost four-fifths of its value; banks have closed their doors, robbing the middle classes of their savings; the poor go hungry; the power is out for 20 hours a day. All this seemed to be pushing Lebanese back into their own communities, Shia, Sunni and Christian. A few weeks ago a friend in Beirut wrote saying that Lebanon was turning into Venezuela and would soon be Somalia. ‘There is a lot of talk about people buying weapons and arming themselves…’
That was before the explosion. Now the popular mood seems to be for revolution. Corruption has spread like a malignant tumor because it was protected by the sectarian division of power in Lebanon. Many of the protesters on the streets want that system swept away, so Lebanon can be a ‘normal’ country. There are risks in this. The sectarian division of power stems from the Taif agreement that ended the civil war 30 years ago. Though it has never delivered a stable government, it has kept the peace. The question now is whether, in their bitterness and anger, Lebanese will return to sectarianism, or if they can break free of their past.