August 14, 2020

A major explosion at the Port of Beirut wreaked havoc across the Lebanese capital, prompting the government’s resignation and plunging the country further into political and economic turmoil.  

Public anger has continued to mount against political elites in the wake of a major explosion at the Port of Beirut Aug. 4. The explosion killed at least 171 people and wounded 6,000 others. Investigators have linked the blast to some 2,750 tons of seized ammonium nitrate that officials had been storing in a port warehouse since 2014. The blast inflicted severe damage across the capital, leveling buildings near the port and shattering windows in buildings throughout the downtown area and surrounding suburbs. Up to 300,000 Beirut residents have been left homeless as a result, and damages are estimated to be approximately USD 15 billion.


Explosion and Accusations of Negligence

Initial investigations point to negligence and the improper storage of ammonium nitrate as the cause of the explosion, though the investigation has yet to conclude.

Aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosion.

Security officials have detained at least 21 employees of the Port of Beirut while authorities continue to question port and customs officials involved in warehouse maintenance. President Michel Aoun has vowed to ensure a quick and transparent investigation. Additionally, the cabinet has referred the probe to the Supreme Judicial Council, the country’s highest legal authority whose decisions cannot be appealed. However, government officials have been heavily criticized for their inaction on the matter, especially after documents surfaced that Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab were warned in July that the stockpile posed a security risk and could potentially destroy the capital.

A representative for Diab stated that he had forwarded the information to the Supreme Defense Council for recommendations within 48 hours of receipt. Meanwhile, Aoun confirmed that he had been informed about the hazardous material and had directed the Supreme Defense Council to “do what is necessary.” The information sent to Aoun and Diab was reportedly the most recent in a series of documents port and security officials had sent to government officials over the previous six years, urging for the removal of the stockpile. Deflection of responsibility among the country’s leaders has greatly angered the Lebanese public, many of whom distrust the government. Drawing further criticism, Aoun has rejected calls for an international probe into the explosion. While the judiciary will reportedly question current and former ministers, protesters and international activists doubt that a government facing corruption allegations is equipped to carry out a fair and comprehensive investigation.


Resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Government


Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned Aug. 10 following violent anti-government demonstrations Aug. 8-9.

Former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Hassan Diab during a speech. Source: Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Government via AP

Thousands gathered at Martyrs' Square, Beirut, to denounce alleged government corruption and mismanagement after the explosion.

Clashes with security forces ensued as demonstrators moved to other parts of the city center, storming the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Economics, and Energy and the Association of Banks. According to the Lebanese Red Cross, at least 238 people sustained injuries, 63 of whom were transported to local hospitals. 

In his resignation speech, Diab attributed the catastrophic blast to endemic corruption from previous administrations and vowed to hold the responsible parties accountable. Diab pledged to request early parliamentary elections; the former prime minister and his government will remain in office in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed. While Diab’s resignation was in apparent response to public pressure, the move will likely compound the country's political turmoil and complicate recovery efforts amid stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Forming a new government will likely be challenging amid growing factional divides, daunting reforms, and increased public discontent. Aoun will consult with various parliamentary blocs to designate candidate; however, it remains unclear who would be a viable candidate for the premiership.


Anti-Government Demonstrations and Demands for Reform

Ongoing anti-government demonstrations a week after the Port of Beirut explosion.

The recent unrest comes amid an ongoing campaign of demonstrations that began in October 2019, demanding an overhaul of Lebanon's political system and the resignation of political elites. Protesters attribute much of the country's issues to the confessional government structure, which distributes political power according to religious sect.

They claim this system benefits political elites and encourages a lack of accountability. Diab took on the premiership in December 2019 following the October 2019 resignation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri amid the demonstrations. Protesters argued that Diab’s new government promised reform without substantive change. Much like Hariri’s resignation, Diab’s resignation has failed to abate the protest movement, which continues to call for structural political and economic reforms. Protesters are demanding the resignation of President Michel Aoun and other politicians, whom they blame for the port explosion. A key slogan throughout the protests has been “all of them means all of them," refers to their demands that all political elites step down from office.


Outlook Moving Forward

The explosion at the Port of Beirut Aug. 4 has worsened Lebanon’s political and economic crisis and exacerbated preexisting grievances against the government. Lebanon had been in a downward spiral for many months. The government defaulted on its debt in March; the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic increased unemployment and further strained limited government resources. The government had been engaged in talks with the IMF to secure USD 10 billion in loans to help reverse the economic crisis; however, the IMF indicated it would not grant loans without serious economic reforms and austerity measures, and talks stalled. 

In the wake of the Beirut blast, international organizations and governments have pledged nearly USD 300 million in relief aid but similarly warned that the money would only be available with a commitment to reforms. Absent major political and economic reforms that address a host of issues, including sectarianism, corruption, poor public services, and currency devaluation, Lebanon’s situation will only continue to deteriorate. Anti-government demonstrations are likely to persist until substantive reforms are enacted. 

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