As the Lebanese run around, sometimes hopelessly, trying to get enough petrol for their cars, food for their families and medicine for sick loved ones in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, it is easy to forget about last year’s catastrophic Beirut’s port explosion.
However, there are hundreds of families who will never forget. They will be marking the tragedy’s first anniversary this Wednesday as they wait patiently for justice. And the rising expectations that a new government may finally be formed, by Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, these families hope that the new government would hold those responsible for the crime accountable.
Mikati, a former Prime Minister and one of Lebanon’s richest men, on Monday secured enough votes in the mandatory parliamentary consultations to form a new government, following the withdrawal of another former Prime Minister Saad Hariri who failed to come up with a new cabinet due to unbridgeable differences with President Michel Aoun over the allocation of ministries.
The Lebanese currency, the Lira, which has lost more than 90 per cent of its value in the past two years due to Lebanon’s economic crisis, has gained slightly against the US dollar on the news of Mikati’s designation. Nevertheless, the prime minister-designate who said that he doesn’t have a magic wand to solve his country’s problems will in fact need to come up with a miracle to stop the spiralling economic meltdown. He is expected thus to focus on tackling the economic crisis, however, he owes it to the Lebanese people to bring justice to those affected by the port’s calamity.
On Aug. 4, 2020, some 2,800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut exploded in what has been described as one of the worst non-nuclear man-made explosions and the third largest explosion in modern time. The blast killed 220 people and injured more than 6,500. The destruction extended up to 10 kilometres away from the site of the explosion resulting in substantial damage to the city’s infrastructure and leaving more than 300,000 people displaced. It destroyed dozens of schools, health facilities and the port’s main grain silos. The economic damage was estimated at $4 billion (Dh14.68 billion).
A shocked world scrambled to send medical and food aid. And an urgent summit hosted by France raised 253 million euros to support the families and the NGOs.
Two days after the blast, French President Emmanuel Macron descended on devastated Beirut for an overhyped visit (described by a Lebanese friend as the ‘visit of one thousand and one hugs as Macron, known for his love of the cameras, got to hug almost everyone in Beirut and its surrounding areas).
Macron, however, managed to pinpoint the real root of the problem. And he was blunt about it. He said the port blast was “a metaphor” for Lebanon’s decades old problems: a corrupt, incompetent system. He also called for a fundamental change in the political system — he wanted “a new political order.”
He called for an international investigation “to prevent things from remaining hidden and doubt from creeping in”. His call, however, was summarily rejected by the Lebanese president. Then he went home, leaving behind a wounded, fragmented nation that knows very well things will remain as is as long as the corrupt political elite continues to yield undisputed power in the failed state.
The Lebanese people know that the real reasons behind the explosion — the exact reasons cited by the French president — government corruption, systematic neglect and incompetence. And they know the names of those responsible. But in keeping with the Lebanese tradition of tolerating major crimes and tragedies because nobody wants to disrupt the complicated but highly sensitive sectarian power-sharing system, justice for the victims of the port blast may actually never see the light of day. Sorry Mr. Macron, things will remain hidden.
An embarrassed government of Hassan Diab, which resigned few day later, pledged to bring justice to the families of the victims and hold those responsible accountable. A special panel, led by the prime minister, launched an initial investigation to find out the cause of the blast and arrested several port and customs officials. Judge Fadi Akiki, a government representative at the military court, said at the time that more than 18 port and customs officials and maintenance workers were questioned. Most of them were released later although some are still banned from travelling. But a more detailed investigation was commissioned by the general prosecutor, led by military judge Fadi Sawan who charged Diab and three former ministers with negligence. One of those ministers, Ali Hassan Khalil, is a top official of the Amal Movement, led by longtime parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, a close ally of Hezbollah. As expected, of course, those charges are again swept under Lebanon’s infamous political corruption rug. The families of the victims still await justice. But some may have a glimmer of hope that the new government might actually do something. They don’t look for closure because I don’t think that is even possible when 220 precocious lives are so tragically lost. They look for justice.
Mikati, who has been prime minister twice before and knows the system in and out, seems to be avoiding this sensitive subject for now, choosing instead to focus on the disastrous economic situation. That is certainly justified. Few weeks ago, the World Bank said in a report that Lebanon’s economic collapse ranks among the world’s “worst financial crises since the 1850.” The report, titled appropriately ‘Lebanon Sinking’, said the country’s will shrink by 10 per cent in 2021 and concluded that there was “no clear turning point in the horizon.”
But first, he has to succeed where Hariri had failed — navigating the sectarian and political rough waters to come up with a government that is acceptable both domestically and internationally, which can be a real paradox. It is almost an impossible task to please both President Aoun and his ally, the armed Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Western powers which insist on a non-partisan cabinet of ‘specialists’ that can negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new aid package.
So far, Mikati seems confident of being able to achieve that, saying that he has “the necessary international guarantees.” And that his first priority would be to implement a political and economic reforms plan, put forward by President Macron when he visited Lebanon again in September.
That is all good. But he needs to add another priority, a transparent and unbiased investigation into the port’s explosion to bring to justice the real culprits. Wednesday’s anniversary could be very useful in reminding the upcoming prime minister that justice delayed is justice denied.