Frenzied residents of Beirut’s central Tayouneh neighborhood rushed for cover. Schoolchildren ducked under their desks. Gunmen fired heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades down the capital’s streets. At the end of the day, when the fury had subsided, at least seven lay dead with dozens more injured.
These scenes from the streets of Beirut did not occur during the country's brutal 15 year civil war or its 2006 conflict with Israel. This latest flare-up of sectarian violence came to pass just this past October.
The events of October 14th, 2021 began peacefully. That morning, protesters organized by the Shia Muslim Amal and Hezbollah parties gathered outside the Palais de Justice, the city’s main court building, to air their grievances against what they saw as a politicized probe into the port explosion in August of 2020. Among their demands was the removal of Tarek Bitar, a judge and chief investigator into the causes of one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions.
The protests, however, were not peaceful for long. According to Hezbollah and Amal, Chrisitian operatives from the Lebanese Forces (LF) party fired into the crowd of demonstrators from nearby rooftops. The LF rejected the accusation outright, but corroborating evidence regarding the origin of the violence and the identity of the snipers has yet to come to light. Speculation continues to run amok as the true sequence of events is obscured by partisan interests.
In reality, there is no single perpetrator responsible for bringing violence back into the streets of Beirut. To understand this latest outburst of sectarian violence, it is essential to consider its roots—from the nature of the explosion itself to the chronic sectarian tensions and dysfunction that have strangled a century of Lebanese politics.
The big bang
The latest era of Lebanon’s dysfunction began on August 4th, 2020. A 2,750 ton cache of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the port of Beirut exploded, damaging buildings up to 20 kilometers away, displacing an estimated 300,000 citizens, and claiming 217 lives.
Although initial theories put forth nefarious explanations for the blast, it was soon proved that the explosion was due to a mismanaged cache of ammonium nitrate, an extremely volatile chemical, rather than a terrorist attack or international conspiracy. Thousands of incensed Lebanese took to the streets in the following days. Some stormed the foreign ministry building while burning a portrait of President Michel Aoun. Their outrage is logical: the Lebanese government left the arsenal of explosive chemicals, often used for bomb making, “unclaimed and unattended” in a massive warehouse near the city center, taking no concrete steps to address the ammonium nitrate depot since its arrival in 2013.
Struggles of succession
With the populace up in arms and the capital down in ruins, a customary admission of guilt, even if empty, was needed. Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s Prime Minister at the time of the blast, became the sacrificial lamb, announcing his resignation just six days after the explosion in the midst of mass protests. In his resignation speech he blamed “chronic corruption” at the core of the Lebanese political system for creating the conditions which allow such an explosion to occur.
The weeks and months following the blast proved Diab’s accusations of corruption and dysfunction correct at the highest echelons of Lebanese politics. It required external pressure from France, the erstwhile colonial overlord of Lebanon, to even begin the process of forming a new government after Diab’s resignation. French officials made repeated contacts with Lebanese leaders, pressuring them into finding a new Prime Minister before French President Macron made an official visit to the country on September 1st.
On August 30th, at the eleventh hour—both metaphorically and literally—members of Parliament voted to grant diplomat Mustapha Adib a chance to form a new government. Adib, the ambassador to Germany at the time, received as solid a mandate as possible in such a divided country: 90 out of 120 Members of Parliament voted in his favor, ranging from the Shia Hezbollah and Amal parties to the Chrisitan Free Patriotic Movement.
Macron’s visit the very next day sought to, in his own words, “mark the end of a political chapter” in Lebanon. Cynics pointed out, however, the futility of expecting Adib, a candidate backed enthusiastically by former prime ministers and by former colonial powers, to hold the Lebanese political machine accountable for its incompetence.
Nevertheless, there was little time to fuss over Adib’s intentions to combat a corrupt system. Just over three weeks after Macron’s visit, Adib stepped down after failing to form a government. The remarkably diverse coalition of MPs which supported Adib in the first place were not placid for long. Squabbles over the influential Finance Minister post—essential in rebuilding Lebanon’s crippled economy—were at the heart of Adib’s political impotence: whereas Adib sought to build a technocratic cabinet of experts, sectarian parties were intent on promoting their own political allies to top posts.
If Mustapha Adib was an outsider, having spent most of his political career in Berlin, Lebanon’s political establishment swung dramatically to the other side a month later when it tasked Saad Hariri with the increasingly elusive task of forming a new government. To call Hariri an insider would be a profound understatement: the mandate he was given on October 22nd was a chance to form his fourth government. With 65 out of 120 MPs voting in his favor, Hariri’s return was secured by a much shakier margin than Adib’s.
Despite his political stature and connections—or, perhaps, because of them—Hariri struggled for nine long months to form a government, a move which he likened to the essential “push of a button” to rebuild Beirut. Yet he too fell victim to entrenched sectarian loyalties, struggling in vain against President Aoun’s (Chrsitian) Free Patriotic party. After his final meeting with the President over the composition of his cabinet, Hariri glumly told the press that “it looks like we’re not going to agree” before tendering his resignation.
Hariri’s replacement, put forth by parliament on July 26th, 2021, has so far had better luck. Najib Mikati, yet another ex-Prime Minister, formed a viable government in September 2021. Given the deep troubles that Adib and Hariri faced in proposing a successful government, Mikati’s routine accomplishment had the air of a triumph.
The probe investigating the blast faced its own delays and challenges. The first man put in charge of the probe was Fadi Sawan, a military judge. Although he seemed to make progress in his first four months investigating the blast, the probe was brought to a two month standstill by long tribunal processes when he charged two former government ministers with negligence. Only a week after a court allowed the investigation to recommence, Sawan was removed from the job: new evidence alleged that his house being struck by debris from the blast had made him an impartial investigator.
Enter Tarek Bitar, the head of the Criminal Court in Beirut and the man now in charge of the probe. Although his personal record is clean, he has been mired in controversy since he took on the job in February. Just weeks after October’s bloody protests demanding Bitar’s removal, top political figures including ex-Prime Minister Diab filed lawsuits to stop investigations into their roles in failing to prevent the tragedy. As Lebanon’s political elites are desperately trying to save themselves from judgement, the families of victims have grown restless after months of delayed justice. As the protests and killings have demonstrated, the dysfunction of the Lebanese state runs deeper than political upheaval.
The multiple political crises to which Lebanon is subject do not exist in a vacuum. Lebanon’s financial crisis predates the explosion. In March 2020, then-PM Diab announced that Lebanon would default on a $1.2 billion debt for the first time in the nation’s history. The refusal to pay Lebanon’s sovereign debt obligations catalyzed a collapse in both general confidence and in currency value. The Lebanese pound, normally valued at 1,500 to one American dollar, has lost an estimated 90 percent of its value since 2019. Inflation rose to a staggering rate of 84.9 percent in 2020 from a manageable 2.9 percent in 2019. By September of 2021, Lebanon’s consumer price index, a measure of price changes in a market basket of goods and services, had grown by 137.8 percent compared to a year prior.
Even before the port explosion, Lebanon and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were engaged in talks about a financial bail out. Although the IMF settled on an economic recovery plan in response to Lebanon’s $90 billion of debt, disagreements within the Lebanese government over the true scale of the financial deficit brought talks to a halt.
By failing to form a competent government for thirteen months after the port explosion, Lebanon’s political establishment let the financial crisis spiral out of control. Now, the Mikati government is attempting to gradually dig Lebanon out. It took the first major step by reopening negotiations with the IMF for a financial bail out, though it is likely that the IMF demands Lebanon undergo institutional changes to ensure proper distribution of financial aid.
For the citizens of Lebanon, the stakes of securing financial aid are exceedingly high. The scale and impact of the financial meltdown is difficult to comprehend. Najat Rochdi, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, argues that Lebanon has become a “living nightmare for ordinary people.” The United Nations estimates that over three-quarters of the Lebanese population has been dragged beneath the poverty line—with 36 percent of the population languishing in “extreme poverty.”
The effects of the port explosion have been especially cruel to Lebanon’s food supplies. The World Food Programme, a humanitarian branch of the United Nations, calculates that 85 percent of Lebanon’s food is imported. With the port of Beirut left in smouldering ruins, food supply chains remain bottlenecked, driving prices up beyond the reach of the impoverished population and generating widespread food insecurity.
Lebanon is also in the throes of an energy crisis. Its inability to pay overseas energy suppliers has resulted in an inability to maintain power supply for 24 hours a day, prompting citizens to rely on private generator networks to avoid power cuts. In October, a fuel shortage crippled the country’s two largest power plants, leading to a complete outage of the electrical grid.
Despite the instability of the current system, a politically divided population is unable to agree on a solution to bring the country out of the darkness. A Hezbollah-brokered deal to supply Lebanon with cheap Iranian oil was met with starkly mixed reactions. Proponents of the deal touted the free distribution of fuel to essential locations like hospitals and nursing homes, but critics viewed the deal as another indicator of increasing Iranian influence in the country’s internal affairs.
A structural issue
Lebanon’s social, political, and economic crises can be explained through the lens of the contemporary chaos, born out of the blast that tore down the high-rises of Beirut much as it tore through the heart of a rotting state. However, this view is decidedly shallow. It fails to take Lebanon’s troubled sectarian past and history of institutional dysfunction into account. Understanding Lebanon’s predicament requires understanding its institutional history, including the contemporary implications of its colonial era and shift into independent statehood.
The modern Lebanese state came into being with the publication of the National Pact of 1943. This founding document enshrined sectarianism into the structure of the Lebanese government: a Maronite Christian would serve as president, a Sunni as Prime Minister, and a Shia as the speaker of parliament. Proponents of the pact touted the establishment of democratic rule in a nation with significant religious rivalries as a triumph of realpolitik.
Others blamed the National Pact for entrenching sectarian divisions and enmeshing already tense religious conflicts with the tangled web of politics. Lebanon’s brutal civil war—with a toll of 90,000 deaths across 15 years—shattered any illusion of sectarian peace promoted by the National Pact. At the war’s conclusion in 1989, the Taif Accord spoke the language of reconciliation and democracy but failed to address the sectarian issues which lay at the heart of the conflict.
In his resignation speech, Diab acknowledged the futility of trying to generate institutional change from within the institutions of the state: “the [state] is constrained by this system and cannot confront it or get rid of it.”
It is essential then, for the Mikati government to recognize that there is no single solution which would lift the country out of its poverty and suffering. The lack of political consensus preventing the formation of a government for 13 months may have been temporarily overcome with the creation of this coalition; yet the forces of disunity running through Lebanese society are not conquerable without deep institutional change. As such, any political healing is difficult with insiders and partisans in charge of reform efforts.
Moreover, any major rebuilding efforts—such as fixing the decimated port in order to free up medication and food supply chains—are infeasible without significant financial reform and regrowth. International attempts to rebuild the port have neocolonial undertones, reminiscent of attempts by nations ranging from France to Turkey to China to gain an influential economic foothold in the Middle East.
The Mikati government will be forced to tread through a political minefield on the path to recovery. It must strike a delicate balance between appeasing Iran and Iran-sympathizers and seeking aid from the West. It must also reconcile competing internal factions within the aging sectarian political system and prevent violent outbursts from the populace. These are challenges that all Lebanese leaders face, but for Mikati, the stakes have never been higher.
The image used in this article is licensed under an Attribution 4.0 International license. It has not been altered from the original, which was taken by Mahdi Shojaeian and distributed by Mehr News Agency.