Lebanon: The multiple crises-hit country - GulfToday

Lebanon: The multiple crises-hit country

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


A Lebanese girl holds a placard during a protest rally in Beirut. Reuters

The honeymoon between Lebanese President Michel Aoun and newly designated Prime Minister Najib Mikati lasted only four days. Mikati was initially upbeat about his appointment and projected optimism over the early formation of a government which could unlock $21 billion in international funds intended to rescue Lebanon from the multiple crises it faces.

Since he enjoys the support of Maronite Christian Aoun’s political ally, Shia Hizbollah, Sunni Mikati last week submitted his confessional apportionment of cabinet posts. Unfortunately he adhered to allocations put forward by his ill-fated predecessor Saad Hariri. Mikati had allocated interior to a Sunni and defence to an Orthodox rather than Maronite Christians. After a weekend reshuffle of sectarian designations and ministries, Mikati is today set to present to Aoun a preliminary cabinet line-up.

A Lebanese source told Gulf Today, Aoun seeks to restore the ascendancy “Christians” enjoyed before the 1975-90 civil war which ended in a 50-50 division between Christians and Muslims but retained the sectarian structure imposed by France ahead of independence.

Mikati abruptly found himself “back to square one,” as the saying goes. Apparently prompted by his son-in-law Jibran Bassil, Aoun stuck to his demand for interior, justice and defence and a veto on policies. Interior would allow him to preside over next spring’s parliamentary election, justice to make certain he and his family are not held accountable for mismanagement and corruption, and defence to assert control over the army.

Aoun and Bassil, who heads the president’s Free Patriotic Movement, clearly do not feel threatened by the French-led European Union (EU) regime of sanctions set to be implemented against Lebanese politicians and entities blocking government formation. Targeted Lebanese officials and politicians would be banned from travel to the EU and assets frozen in the EU while EU individuals and organisations would be “forbidden from making funds available” to those listed. Implementation is not imminent. The EU is still discussing who should be sanctioned and all 27 members have to agree if these measures are to go forward.

The dithering EU has been debating sanctions for so long that Lebanese who could be affected would have shifted bank accounts out of the bloc and those who own homes would have registered properties in the names of wives, children, or trusted persons.  While Mikati strives to form a fully-fledged government, Lebanese are marking the August 4th anniversary of the explosion in Beirut port that killed 2011 people, wounded 6,500 and made 300,000 homeless.

The detonation of what was thought to be 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was the world’s largest non-nuclear blast since World War II and was surpassed only by the atomic bombs dropped by the US on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of the conflict.

However, an October 7, 2020, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) report leaked to Reuters last week has revealed that only one-fifth, 552 tonnes, of the poorly stored shipment actually blew up. Lebanese investigators agreed with this figure. A Lebanese official gave two explanations: most of the material had been stolen or blown out to sea by the explosion.

A third possible explanation is that a large proportion of the ammonium nitrate had deteriorated and may have actually dampened down or even smothered the amount which remained explosive, diminishing the blast. The FBI, which sent investigators to Beirut shortly after the explosion, could not explain what happened to the bulk of the shipment. If the entire consignment had exploded the devastation would have been far more widespread and deadly. Therefore, it was fortunate for Lebanon and Beirut that most of the material did not detonate.

The FBI figure has confirmed suspicions that four-fifths of the shipment was stolen. Since most of Lebanon’s political factions had – and have – agents, officials and workers in the port, none can be conclusively identified and held responsible. Or, the perpetrator or perpetrators may simply have been a port worker or workers who pillaged the warehouse where the material was stored and sold it to construction firms which use it for blasting sites or bringing down derelict buildings. If the material had been used to make bombs, they would have already made their impact on the situation.

The ammonium nitrate was being transported from Georgia to Mozambique on an ill-maintained, Russian-leased freighter when the ship paused at Beirut port in November 2013 to pick up machinery for Jordan. However, the ship was detained after a dispute arose over payment of port fees and the seaworthiness of the vessel. The captain and several crew were held on the ship and, after some months, the ammonium nitrate was offloaded and placed in a warehouse. The ship and/or shipment were never claimed although the cargo was traced a to Russian businessman based in Limassol in Cyprus.

Lebanon’s neglectful, inept, and corrupt political elite has been widely and vehemently blamed for the explosion by most Lebanese and outsiders. Although senior officials were warned by the ship’s captain and, subsequently, by port officials of the risks posed by the cargo, they took no action and, after the blast, stalled investigations into how and why it happened and who was responsible.

The ship arrived at the port during the prime ministry of Tammam Salam who was followed by two cabinets headed by Aoun-appointed Saad Hariri. Hariri was succeeded by Hassan Diab who remains in caretaker capacity. Hariri was designated to form a cabinet in October 2020 but, due to Aoun’s intransigence, was unable to recruit neutral experts capable of initiating reforms demanded by foreign donors and the International Monetary Fund. Aoun, who was elected to the presidency in October 2016, and all the prime ministers and cabinets in office since the ship docked at the port are guilty of negligence, to say the least. Mikati is blameless because he was not in office after the death ship arrived.

Since the port blast did not compel the self-serving political class to form a government nothing has been done to rescue Lebanon from ruin. Save the Children has reported that over the past year hundreds of thousands of children continue to suffer hunger as family incomes have shrunk dramatically, prices soar, and the economy spirals down. Power cuts and lines at petrol pumps lengthen as Lebanon does not have the hard currency to purchase fuel. Medicine, and other essential goods have disappeared from the market. Hospitals lack fuel to run generators during electricity outages and medical supplies to provide proper treatment while, despite an aggressive vaccination drive, Covid cases are rising rapidly.

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