Lebanon, a state in freefall thanks to corrupt governance

The detonations turned the immediate surroundings into a sea of rubble
The detonations turned the immediate surroundings into a sea of rubble

The Beirut catastrophe has exposed the true extent of government failure in Lebanon. People are blaming the country’s corrupt and incompetent system for the explosion, says Karim El-Gawhary

Essay by Karim El-Gawhary

It was a remarkable scene: the French President Emmanuel Macron, on a brief visit to Beirut, making his way through the crowds in the devastated neighbourhood of Gemayze close to the port. For his security staff it was a nightmare scenario that their boss was pressing the flesh in downtown Beirut. It was also a nightmare for his accompanying host, the Lebanese President Michel Aoun. He had to listen as residents of the neighbourhood resurrected the old slogans of the 2011 Arabellion and chanted: "The people want to topple the system".

The visit also highlighted the failure of Lebanese politics in the wake of the explosion. It was the Frenchman who addressed people on the streets of Beirut. "I see the emotion in your faces, your sadness and your pain. That’s why I came," he explained, as he shook hands in a street still partially strewn with rubble and where the shops were still waiting for replacement windows.

Up to that point, no Lebanese politician had shown their faces on the streets of the city. For very good reason: the Lebanese hold them responsible for establishing the corrupt and incompetent system that they say caused the disaster.


Macron calls for reforms

With a clear sideswipe at his host, Macron explained that without serious political and economic reforms, the Lebanese boat will sink. "What we need here is political change. The explosion should mark the beginning of a new era," he said.

Macron was trying to score points as a saviour in the Lebanese state vacuum. Not everyone gave the Frenchman a friendly reception. But almost everyone booed Aoun, the president of their own country. Aoun had nothing to offer and his authorities are being held responsible for the negligent storage of the chemicals that resulted in the blast. At least the former colonial power and Macron brought aid shipments and a few comforting words. That the foreign head of state sought to shine, while the country’s actual leader was left cowering, shows just how little faith the Lebanese people have in their nation’s institutions.

This general mistrust of the state in Lebanon is based on years of experience. The political elite and high-ranking officials have simply lined their own pockets; robbing the country and bringing it to its knees economically even before the corona crisis. The people do not trust the state on any level. For example, they don’t believe that the government will genuinely investigate the cause of the explosion. Just a few days after the catastrophe, there were increasingly audible calls for an independent foreign commission of inquiry. This is because the Lebanese government has for years tried to cover up its mistakes. Every Lebanese knows that in Lebanon, state bodies are rarely called to account.


Civil society cannot replace the state

This is also why the Lebanese are demanding that international aid money is not channelled via state authorities. Here too, they fear they will be robbed. In the meantime, in view of the extent of the catastrophe, they need a functioning state more than ever. And this is precisely their dilemma. They know the problems they face cannot be resolved by the corrupt elite and a confessional system of self-enriching clans that created these problems in the first place. But in the mammoth task involved in getting Beirut back on its feet, the neighbourhood committees and civil society organisations currently helping in the clear-up and aid operation cannot replace the state.

And that state has once again turned out to be a total failure. There is no central crisis management. There is not even an official list of missing persons. It is the complete collapse of the state that the Lebanese know so well. In the event of such a catastrophe, this is fatal. In the days following the explosion, people were left to fend for themselves. It was heartrending to hear their stories: how they trailed from hospital to hospital to find their loved ones or waited behind the cordons at the scene of the blast in the hope of being let through to comb through the rubble themselves and search for the missing.

But for those in a position to help themselves, there are obstacles to overcome. The homes of up to 300,000 people were destroyed or badly damaged. They have so far received no help from the government. People have no choice but to use their savings – to at least carry out necessary repairs. But the problem with that is that most Lebanese people have dollar accounts. They are only allowed to withdraw a limited sum of money from these accounts; the cash is paid out in Lebanese pounds at a poor exchange rate. The banks’ rate is 3,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar; the black market rate is more than twice that. But they have to pay the going rate for tradesmen and material for the repairs.

Karim El-Gawhary

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon


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