AGENDA OF THE MONTH

Agenda of the Month: Yesterday and Today of the Beirut Explosions

by Kaan ERTAN

Lebanon has always had a unique place in the Middle East, for being the most religiously diverse country in the region. It has 18 recognised religious groups. Roughly 60% of its population is Muslim, 33% is Christian and 5% is Druze. To sustain peace and provide representation in the country, Lebanon has a sectarian rule. This means that important government seats are held by people from different sects and religions to provide equal representation to all the groups. Although it seems like a just and useful rule for such a country, nowadays people are dissatisfied by this rule and they have taken the matter to the streets.

 

Before the explosion, there were already protests going on in Lebanon. These protests began in October 2019. The reason why these protests broke out was the over-taxation of products such as gasoline and tobacco. However, they quickly turned into a country-wide reaction against the government. At that point, the unemployment rate had reached over 46%, corruption in the public services were quite common and vital services such as electricity, water and sanitation could not be continuously provided to the people. This resulted in an inevitable public reaction to the government and the sectarian rule of Lebanon.

 

The protests created a political crisis in Lebanon, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigning from office. However, other politicians remained in power. On 19 December 2019, former Minister of Education Hassan Diab succeeded as the next prime minister and formed a new government. However, this did not help much with rooting out the protests, since the protesters condemned his resignation as prime minister. Diab would eventually leave the office, but not until 2020 and not because of the protests. Diab and his entire cabinet resigned from the office following the public anger over the Beirut explosions, on 10 August 2020.

 

The Beirut explosions were a series of explosions at the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. A Moldovan flagged cargo ship, named MV Rhosus, was planned to sail from Batumi/Georgia to Beira/Mozambique. It set sail from Batumi in September 2013. Despite not being on its route, the ship docked to the Port of Beirut on 21 November 2013. Although the reason for this destination change is unknown to the date, it is believed that the ship did not possess enough money to pay the Suez Canal passing fees and therefore went to Beirut to load extra cargo. At the port, the ship got loaded an extra cargo of heavy machinery. However, upon inspections, the port authority deemed the ship as not seaworthy. Since the ships original cargo was 2750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, that cargo was unloaded from the ship to a warehouse in the port for security reasons. Port authorities then requested either a private company or the Lebanese Army to buy the ammonium nitrate, pointing that it is too risky to keep it in a warehouse where the climate is unstable, and security is light. However, despite all the efforts of the port authority, the dangerous cargo could not be moved out of the warehouse until the explosion happened. That is mainly due to the problematic bureaucratic structure of the institutions.

On the afternoon of 4 August, the ammonium nitrate, which was stored next to a firework storage unit, caught fire and caused an explosion. Shortly after a second and much bigger explosion shook the capital city. The blast was so immense that it caused a 4,5-magnitude earthquake and was felt from as far away as Cyprus. The explosion resulted in at least 190 deaths, 6.500 injuries, approximately 300.000 people being left homeless and $10-15 billion worth of property damage. After the explosion, a 2-week state of emergency was quickly announced, and international aid poured into the country.

 

Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the explosion strained the country in all aspects. 2 days after the explosion, nation-wide protests erupted once more, with thousands of people demanding the resignation of the government. Prime Minister Diab called for early elections, seeing this as a way out of the crisis. However, on the 9th and 10th of August, some ministers stepped down from their positions. These resignations were to be followed by the resignation of Diab and therefore the whole cabinet. Following his resignation, Diab was asked by the president to keep the government functioning until new elections are held. Although he and the rest of his cabinet are still holding their positions, for the time being, protesters still demand them to “resign or hang”, as they say. (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

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