GeoBrief: Beirut Explosion – Crisis after Crisis

On 4th August 2020, a massive explosion was reported near the port area of Beirut, Lebanon. The shock-wave surged through the neighbouring area. It was felt even across Cyprus.

Sources report that at least 100 people are feared dead and more than 4000 wounded. The number is preliminary and is likely to be updated. Lebanon’s Health Minister Hamad Hassan has announced that hospitals should be prepared to take in patients caught up in the explosion.

The state-run media National News Agency (NNA) first reported a warehouse fire around 7 pm local time. A “considerable number of wounded” were reported, according to the source. The warehouse also housed a significant amount of explosive material (later identified as ammonium nitrate), which magnified the blast radius as a result. This was also confirmed shortly after the explosion by Lebanon’s Head of General Security, General Abbas Ibrahim. The explosive material are said to have been confiscated years before. This unfortunately mimics the disaster Cyprus faced with the 2011 explosion in the Evangelos Florakis naval base.

At the moment, the priority lies with treating all affected casualties in the region. Investigations into this “unexplained” (as it has been referred to) explosion are still ongoing.

Firefighters and casualties – Port of Beirut © Hasan Shaban/Bloomberg

Anticipating further Economic Meltdown

Lebanon has suffered hits on multiple fronts. With the fires, health and economic crisis in late 2019, Lebanon erupted in protests throughout these past few months. The COVID-19 pandemic has also made the situation even worse, with several people plagued with the virus. Simultaneously, many have lost jobs and the economy is unsteady and in shambles.

Meanwhile, these conflicting reports of tensions add an even greater amount of pressure on a very fragile economy. With an accelerating financial collapse, desperation is at its highest, with many struggling to survive. The rate of suicides linked to the economic devastation has also spiked, leaving many families vulnerable and exposed.

The aftermath of the explosion has already shown a significant amount of material damages. Rebuilding will have a greater toll on an already exhausted economy that unfortunately lacks the appropriate infrastructure to manage a multitude of crises.

Awful Timing and Politics

Geopolitical Cyprus has no information that links the incident to an organised attack or sabotage. By August 5 it became clear that the explosion had to do with the storage of 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a material that can be used to make fertilizers and explosive. Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, has vowed to bring to justice those responsible for the catastrophe.

Even so, Western media sources report the explosion to be very timely due to the highly anticipated trial of the 4 murder suspects of the Hariri Tribunal. Rafiq Baha El-Din Al-Hariri was Lebanon’s Prime Minister following the end of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. Hariri was assassinated on 14th February 2005, a murder that helped spark the so-called Cedar Revolution[1] against the Syrian occupation forces in Lebanon.

For some, Hariri was a controversial figure. As a prominent Sunni politician, he was eligible for the Prime Ministerial post, following the outcome of the talks at Ta’if at the end of the Civil War. Hariri, however, was also a business tycoon with Saudi ties. He was responsible for numerous economic reforms during the post-war period. Some of the reforms have been characterised as “structural adjustment programmes” initiated to boost the country’s GDP and to ‘boom’ the economy.

The reforms concentrated on liberal, free-market policies that fell under the neoliberal economic model. Nonetheless, these programmes had minimal impact and were short-lived, as they combined austerity, concentrating wealth at the hands of a few, skyrocketing unemployment, and even promoting further inequality and division. The paradox was that on the one hand, Hariri was known as the ‘Father of the Poor’ – he was seen as a ‘saviour’ figure that would restore economic order for the less privileged Lebanese citizens following the war – and on the other hand, his policies were regressive and suppressed the working class.

Hariri’s campaign poster during the post-war period, with the caption “Father of the Poor”[2]

The Tribunal

The Tribunal was initially set up in 2007, with the approval of the UN Security Council. It sought to investigate the murder of Hariri and another 21 people caught in the blast radius in 2005. Initial findings first reported that the murder was tied to Syrian officials. However, the Tribunal later on charged 5 individuals with ties to Hezbollah, out of which 4 of those have had their case brought forward. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has urged the Lebanese people to boycott the said Tribunal.

Hezbollah has often been criticised in recent years for its political involvement. It is also one of the very few political actors in the region that retains its own private military wing. Not only that, but growing tensions in the Israeli-Lebanese border in South Lebanon have worsen off the political situation. The IDF has accused Hezbollah of attempted raids near the border in late July 2020, though the latter’s chiefs and operatives have denied such accusations. In fact, Hezbollah has accused Israel of fabricating reports as an excuse for further intervention in Lebanese politics.

Now What?

A country and its people can only take up so much in such a short period. From a recession that has been going on for years, to a shaky political minefield that is guarded by a sectarian political elite, Lebanon has enough. It has gone through several protests in its recent history – from the Cedar Revolution all the way to the October 2019 protests, we have seen a long struggle of a people that has suffered from sectarianism, poor economic and living standard conditions, and now a pandemic and a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital.

This is a developing story and Geopolitical Cyprus will provide updates accordingly.

By Petros Petrikkos

[1] These were protests against Syrian occupation, following the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri

[2] Source: Kingston, P.W.T. (2013) Reproducing Sectarianism: Advocacy Networks and the Politics of Civil Society in Postwar Lebanon. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, p.85.

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