Two Years After the Port Blast, Lebanon Struggles for Renewal
Nicole Hamouche 13 July 2022

On May 15th, Lebanon elected a new parliament. The diaspora’s vote increased threefold from the last elections in 2018, due mainly to the massive lobbying effort by activists. Numerous Lebanese in Lebanon and abroad posted images of their fingerprints on social media upon voting, enthusiastically sharing their contribution to the latest elections, viewed by many as historical. Some even planned to travel home for the event.  The elections were a chance to weaken the corrupt ruling political class that has held the country hostage over the last decades and has dragged it into misery. For a few hours or days after the results were announced, there was some joy in the air, because of the hope instilled: for the first time in over thirty years, since the end of the war, new figures penetrated the closed circle of Parliament mostly made of the war and post-war ruling class. Even with a biased electoral law, made by the latter to maintain the status quo, thirteen young and less young, educated, proactive figures from the protest movements of October 2019, made their way into the cenacle; and among them, eight high profile self-made women, a first for Lebanon. Najat Aoun Saliba, a professor of Analytical Chemistry at the American University of Beirut and a recipient of the L’Oréal-UNESCO International Award for Women in Science; Halime Kaakour, 47, a law professor at the Lebanese University, with a Ph.D.  in international public law and human rights from the University of Montpellier, Marc Daou, 43, graduate of the London School of Economics and lecturer at the American University of Beirut in Media Studies, participated in nearly every protest since the end of the war in 1990. Firas Hamdan, 35, a lawyer, who was gravely wounded by parliament police as he demonstrated, the shrapnel from a grenade still lodged in his heart, infuriated by the Beirut port explosion in August 2020. Most of the newly elected members were already civil activists and engaged in their villages and communities. The August 4 blast of last year was for most of them the catalyst to participate more actively in the protest movements and engage in politics by participating in the legislative elections.

The euphoria of the elections however, did not last long – for it is clearly not enough to be educated and proactive to navigate Lebanon’s complex politics and regional and international intricacies. The Parliament is still under the control of the traditional mainstream parties who had taken part in the war, such as Amal, the Shi’a party led by Nabih Berry, President of the Chamber since 1992; the Lebanese Forces Christian Party; the Kataeb; the Free Patriotic Movement affiliated to the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun and led by his son in law; the Druze Progressive Socialist Party; and Hezbollah, whose weapons arsenal, with the blessing of its Christian allies from the Patriotic Free Movement, is a Damocles sword on all major national decisions, including justice for the victims of the August 4th blast. Since October 2019, following the collapse of the economy and of public institutions, aggravated by the devastation brought by the 2020 blast, not a single reform was implemented. And the same political players are now delaying the formation of a new government as they argue over the larger ministerial portfolios, such as finance, energy, or foreign affairs, while the population continues to suffer.

In such a polarized political climate and deliquescent landscape, these new parliamentarians have been uniting to advocate for the utmost urgent economic and social reforms and have refused to participate in a new government if it were to be one of national unity. Several parties who also believe firmly in State sovereignty – i.e. those parties who believe that only the Lebanese Army should hold weapons – have also adopted the same position. The boycott pleads for a technocratic government; but a deadlock seems likely based on recent history, and despite apparent general awareness of the gravity of the social and economic challenges facing the country. The top priority at the moment is the approval of the financial recovery plan and the negotiations with the IMF, as the international community will not extend a penny before reforms are enacted. The French seem to be the most vocal on the matter, Paris being the leader of the International Support Group to Lebanon.


Out of time

With rampant poverty and the depletion of public funds, caused by decades of corruption, inertia and public affairs mismanagement, Lebanon no longer has the luxury of time. 80 to 90 percent of Lebanese live under the poverty line according to the World Bank. The devaluation of the Lebanese pound, trading at 1500 to the dollar on the black market just before the economic collapse in October 2019 to 30000 to the dollar, today– makes basic daily necessities including food, health care and medicine, unaffordable for most of the population in an import-based economy. Hospitals reject those who have no private insurance and even those with insurance have to pay outrageous supplements before they are taken care of.

Électricité du Liban provides two hours of electricity per day, the price of fuel is skyrocketing, inhabitants have to pay private owners of generators – often mafiosi – for power: the tariffs are more than the cap currently imposed on cash withdrawals imposed by banks. Unable to tap into their savings and deposits, often lifetime savings for most, Lebanese feel like their hands are tied while their country is plunged into darkness, both literally and metaphorically. Garbage and beggars on the streets are symbols of this deprivation and depravation. What was once called the Paris of the Middle East has become a ghost city, for which an ever dynamic entrepreneurial and creative scene together with civil society still fight to bring some glimpses of light.

In this context, the most promising Lebanese, both young and old, are queuing at embassies for visas. Deserted of their best human resources, hospitals for instance that were once among the country’s centers of excellence have become a sad reflection of its wreckage. The same is happening in universities and schools, where the salary of a teacher or a professor is now equivalent to only a couple of hundred dollars at a maximum. Despite all their efforts, civil society and the private sector cannot lift the burden of a fallen state and bankrupt banks by themselves, on top of which 1.5 million Syrian refugees still weigh. Lebanon has asked for a dignified return of the latter to their country, but so far, there has been no sign from the international community for a move in this direction.

Other major issues are also at stake currently, such as the offshore gas fields that were discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean. The sea border demarcation is a subject of controversy between Lebanon and Israel, which has started exploiting the Karish gas field, even though no agreement has yet been reached. Lebanese civil society, on its side, is concerned that politicians will sell out this precious resource – one reason why the energy ministerial portfolio is so coveted – at the expense of the general interest and take this pretext to push reforms further away. The US emissary, Amos Hochstein, who is pursuing indirect negotiations between the two countries that are officially enemies, has indicated progress in the negotiations. At the same time, the pro-Iranian Hezbollah has been intensifying its activities on the border with Israel, where it has re-deployed its soldiers including its elite unit and has flown three drones over Karish field, in a provocative gesture. In any case, major issues such as that of the offshore gas fields and that of the election of a president which is supposed to take place in October, are more likely to be sorted out as part of a regional package deal.


Struggling for justice 

Almost two years after one of the deadliest explosions in history [1], neither truth nor justice has been made on the August 2020 tragedy. The investigation has been continuously blocked. That is an indicator on how far corruption and political violence have corroded the system, disabling even the judiciary. The independence of the latter is actually very much questioned and reforms are also urgent here. Even assuming that the victims’ families were to consider referring to international justice, which they have started doing – as in the Hariri case [2] – they could not, as Lebanon has no means whatsoever to afford international justice expenses, unless they can find donors. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, an international independent tribunal established after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, composed of both Lebanese and international judges, has cost the country about 490 million US dollars and took more than a decade; Lebanon bore 49 percent of the nearly 1 billion dollars of total expenses, while the rest was composed of voluntary contributions. And “when justice takes so long, it is no longer justice”, says the Lebanese judge on the STL, Micheline Braidy [3] It is only on June 16that the STL issued its last verdict sentencing two Hezbollah members to life imprisonment. Hezbollah leaders refused to recognize the decisions of the international tribunal and to hand over the criminals – like in 2020 when Salim Ayache, also a Hezbollah member, was convicted for his involvement in the assassination. Total absence of rule of law and lack of accountability and impunity at all levels are among Lebanon’s main plagues which have been impeding it from moving forward.

Will it also take decades for justice for the victims of the Beirut Port explosion? Or will it simply never be reached, as was the case with the families of those who disappeared during Lebanon’s civil war, during which 17,000 people went missing or were kidnapped, mostly imprisoned or killed in Syria [4]. As we approach the second anniversary of the August 4th blast, will the Lebanese honor the memory of all the victims of the blast as well as so many other conflicts in the country’s recent history? Will new leaders and a new president slowly but surely turn over a new leaf for Lebanon? As US President Joe Biden heads to the Middle East and the contours of a regional deal emerge, Lebanon with its remaining creative forces, its diaspora and civil society continues to fight for its place in the world and in the Middle East, looking to preserve its essence as a crossroads of cultures and civilizations, at times where the world is in dire need for such models of “vivre ensemble”.


[1] More than 7000 people were injured and 218 were killed in the Beirut blast on August 4th, 2020  

[2] Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in February 2005


[4] More than 40 years after the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, families of the missing are still waiting for answers. They have been relentlessly asking Lebanese authorities to uncover the fate of those who went missing and kidnapped – mostly to Syria – during conflicts in Lebanon. 17, 000 Lebanese are estimated to be missing,


Cover Photo: Newly elected Lebanese opposition members of parliament on May 31, 2022, after a march with relatives of the Beirut port blast victims and supporters (AFP).

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