[On 4 August 2020 a massive explosion in the port of the Lebanese capital Beirut, reportedly the largest non-nuclear blast ever recorded, resulted in at least 200 deaths, thousands of injuries, and extensive damage throughout the city. Although the precise cause of the explosion has not yet been determined, it is for many Lebanese symptomatic of the negligence and corruption of the country’s ruling elites and as such has resulted in a new wave of popular demonstrations demanding change, Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor interviewed Mona Harb, Jadaliyya Co-Editor and Professor of Urban Studies and Politics at the American University of Beirut, to get a better understanding of the explosion’s physical and political consequences]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What is known about the cause of the explosion, and what are the main issues that are being/need to be investigated?
Mona Harb (MH): Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty tons of high-grade explosive ammonium nitrate were carelessly stored in a hangar in the Beirut port. It is assumed this material ignited and caused the massive, deadly explosion of 4 August 2020. The blast killed more than two hundred people and wounded seven thousand, while at least thirty individuals are still missing. The explosion was heard throughout the city and beyond, throughout Mount Lebanon, and as far as Nicosia, Cyprus.
What caused the ammonium nitrate to explode? How and why did this cargo reach Beirut in 2013? What motivated its offloading at the port? Why was it stored in an unsafe manner for seven years? Who knew about these decisions, and who failed to act to prevent this catastrophe? These questions are yet to be properly answered.
Critical reports are emerging thanks to the efforts of local investigative journalists, in particular the al-Jadeed television channel (New TV). We know that the ship (the Rhosus), owned by Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin, was headed from Georgia to Mozambique. It made a stop in Beirut for obscure reasons, allegedly to pick up merchandise. It is said that, on account of legal disputes, the owner of the Rhosus washed his hands of the ship and its crew. The crew was permitted to disembark in Beirut eleven months later, after the intervention of Lebanese lawyers.
In 2014, the ammonium nitrate was offloaded and stored in a port hangar. Several accounts claim that the ship itself sunk. Journalists have also revealed evidence that in the years since 2014, various port and state officials (specifically, customs, army, and judiciary) exchanged correspondence about the need to dispose of the dangerous cargo, to no avail. This continued right up until 2020, when the consignment blew up. The cause of the explosion remains unclear. Obviously, many key questions remain unanswered. Judging by the progress of the official investigation established by the cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Diab prior to its resignation, we may not obtain answers for a long while, if ever.
MR: What impact has the explosion had, on both the people of Beirut and the city itself?
MH: The blast resulted in damage in about half of municipal Beirut. The neighborhoods of Karantina, Mar Mikhail, Gemmayzeh, Jeitawi, and Sursock are substantially damaged. The blast also heavily impacted Achrafieh, the city center, Zokak al-Blatt, and Clemenceau. Glass was shattered across Ras Beirut, Ghobeyri, Badaro, and Sin el-Fil.
According to an initial government assessment, approximately 200,000 homes and livelihoods, distributed across 8,000 buildings—of which 640 are historic—have been affected. Many of these are located in Mar Mikhail and Gemmayze. It is noteworthy that in both these neighborhoods, the old urban fabric had been relatively well-preserved, evolving organically since the early twentieth century. Gouraud street, known as Gemmayze, is the spine that links Bourj Hammoud to the city center, and is one of the oldest streets in Beirut. Both neighborhoods are distinguished by their charming pedestrian character, configured around staircases, alleyways, hidden gardens, and a rich architectural heritage including many triple-arched houses known as “Lebanese” houses, as well as other distinguished buildings from the French mandate period.
These are the neighborhoods where many Beirutis go for a stroll and congregate with friends and family, accumulating precious memories. These are the places they take foreign visitors to, boasting of the beauty and history of their capital city. These are the sites which the diaspora is so fond of connecting with when they come spend their vacations in Lebanon. These are the urban spaces expatriates long to reside in, as they embody the particular ambiance of a Mediterranean hybrid city. These are the streets designers, artists, small industrialists, and businesses have chosen to invest in over the past decades, enriching them with their vibrancy—although they also initiated processes of gentrification that several urbanists have critiqued. The explosion decimated these rich, imbricated layers, and people are mourning the loss of collective memories generated in the multiple locations and alleyways of these neighborhoods.
The blast also destroyed Karantina, another historical, low-income neighborhood named after the quarantine linked to the pandemic at the beginning of the twentieth century. There, many poor families and migrant workers who were already vulnerable are struggling to cope with the explosion’s aftermath. Similarly, other groups of low-income dwellers in clusters within Mar Mikhail, Jeitawi, and Badawi are facing increasingly precarious conditions linked to the loss of homes and livelihoods, especially as most are housed and employed informally.
The specter of real-estate vultures is already looming over all these neighborhoods, casting the shadow of a Solidere II—another private-led real-estate intervention that would rob people of their rights amidst an economic and financial crisis that is making dwellers more likely to sacrifice their assets. Solidere refers to the private real-estate company established in 1992 by the government of the late prime minister, Rafic Hariri, to rebuild the city center after the civil war. The parliament issued a special law that expropriated all properties and forcefully transformed rights-holders into shareholders of Solidere. Through a compensation scheme that under-estimated the values of their property, thousands of landlords and tenants who used to live and work in Beirut’s downtown lost their livelihoods. Protests were to no avail. Additionally, the law allowed the company to reclaim large surface areas from the sea and exempted it from the payment of taxes for decades. Solidere has been described as one of the twentieth century’s biggest reconstruction scandals.
The same questions that emerged during the post-civil war reconstruction of the early 1990s, and after the 2006 Israeli war, are resurfacing again: how to ensure a people-centered recovery process that is inclusive and environmentally sustainable, and that can redress deep-rooted socio-spatial inequalities and reclaim the public domain?
MR: How are groups on the ground responding on the relief/recovery front?
MH: In the context of dysfunctional state institutions, the response to the blast has primarily come from the people themselves. The hardest-hit neighborhoods of Mar Mikhail and Jeitawi include several large hospitals. Patients, visitors, and medical personnel inside these hospitals were injured, and medical equipment damaged, thus preventing the possibility of any emergency medical response. People rushed to help by shuttling the wounded to other hospitals in their cars and motorbikes. Some doctors opened their homes to care for the injured.
By the following morning, these neighborhoods were inundated with volunteers from all over Lebanon to help remove the debris. Young men and women, armed with brooms and shovels, helmets and gloves, entered homes and businesses to help clean up glass, salvage belongings, and support residents and business-owners. NGOs, religious groups, and scouts took over the streets of Karantina, Gemmayze, and Mar Mikhail, offering food, water, and relief aid. Neighborhood groups organized, while the diaspora mobilized its solidarity networks and donations started flowing.
Fantastic efforts were activated within a few days. These included providing a live data-enabled map that tracks, traces, and assigns rebuilding efforts, centralized survey assessment tools, cross-functional engineering teams and developers, orders for building materials supplies, and many others (see here for instance, and here, and @rebuild_beirut on Instagram).
The official response was not as swift. While the mayor of Beirut declared the municipality “unable to coordinate solidarity actions on the ground,” the Higher Relief Council, which coordinated the post-war reconstruction efforts of 2006, mobilized to conduct damage assessments. It was assisted by the Order of Engineers and Architects and the military. The international donor community’s usual suspects—UN agencies and the World Bank—also brought in experts and consultants. Universities, think tanks, and research centers are shifting their agendas to address recovery needs.
The main approach to reconstruction resembles previous ones in its quantitative assessment of damages, in which buildings, particularly historic ones, are the focus, and in which dysfunctional state institutions known to have failed to protect the public good over the years are assigned responsibility alongside the same large-scale firms and contractors which are close associates of the political class people are protesting against.
MR: Amid widespread condemnation of Lebanon's governing elites, the cabinet has resigned and there are reports of early elections. What are your expectations for the coming period? What should we look for to get a better sense of how elites intend to retain their power and the degree to which popular protests are having an impact? And how do you assess the international response?
MH: On the political front, given the pandemic as well as the multiple economic and financial crises Lebanon was already experiencing, the situation is extremely volatile. The explosion enraged an already angry population, whose protests in October 2019 brought down the government led by Saad Hariri.
Protests, previously halted by the COVID-19 lockdown, resumed several days after the blast. On 8 August 2020 thousands again took to the streets, installing symbolic nooses in Martyrs' Square, demanding accountability and the collective resignation of the corrupt political class. The police violently repressed the mobilization, seriously wounding several protestors. On 11 August the government of Hassan Diab resigned. This did not quench the popular rage. As the ammonium nitrate cargo accounts were unfolding, the crime scene was shabbily investigated, the horrific stories of the dead and wounded were revealed, and the deeply entrenched corruption of the political class was becoming more and more exposed in all its ugliness and impunity.
The previous day, 10 August, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and the port, presenting himself as Lebanon’s savior. He paved the way for a series of foreign visitors, from Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States, to position themselves on the Lebanese chessboard. While aiding reconstruction is the obvious framework for these visits, external powers are not shying away from openly meddling in Lebanon’s politics. While some welcome these visits and call for declaring Lebanon a failed state that should be put under international tutelage, others are trying to capitalize on these interventions to reposition themselves. Still others are denouncing them as foreign interference.
Clearly, the Hizballah-Aoun coalition supported by Iran, and that has been in power since 2018, has reached a dead-end. Will foreign interference negotiate a new consensus among the political class of oligarchs and enable its overall reproduction? Will opposition groups manage to organize themselves in ways to influence these negotiations and turn the tables? There is a small window of opportunity for change opening up. Will it be used to produce structural change or, yet again, new wine in old bottles?
I believe geopolitical and domestic interests are likely to coincide at the expense of opposition groups. Sectarian politics have repeatedly demonstrated their success at self-reproduction through strategies and tactics carefully honed over decades, most often with the support of international powers that seek to advance their own agendas. Though there are serious attempts at organizing effectively and consolidating a common vision and program, protestors are not yet ready to impose their agenda.
If early elections were to happen, the current parliament, dominated by the oligarchs, will call for them to be conducted according to a gerrymandered election law similar to that of 2018. This would make it impossible for opposition groups to win a significant number of seats—if any at all. The political class will thus re-elect itself and reclaim its legitimacy. As during the past three decades, international actors will provide aid, yet again, nurturing their corruption. If this pessimistic scenario were to occur, the challenge will be for organized groups not to lose hope, and to continue organizing and consolidating, as the process of political change in Lebanon is a long and arduous journey that is in its early stages.