It was an awkward scene. In fact, it was surreal watching French President Emmanuel Macron touring Beirut, on Thursday, in the wake of the port blast, talking to the crowds and promising to stand by the Lebanese people, not their government.
What made it awkward is the absence of the Lebanese authorities. The country’s leaders were watching Macron live on television, just like everyone else. Meanwhile, Macron felt at home. He was mobbed like a hero. I am sure he would not get such a warm treatment in his capital.
It was his moment: the undisputed leader of the former French colony. Most likely he was thinking about that when he told the mesmerised crowd that he will offer the Lebanese leaders a plan to fix Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system and would be back in September to follow up on its implementation.
That would have sounded strange and certainly undiplomatic in any other circumstances. Or if Macron had said it in another country. But in Lebanon, it didn’t feel strange at all. The Macron scene zoomed in on the main cause of the catastrophic Beirut Port explosion that left at least 135 dead and thousands injured. It is simply the absence of the state.
More than 2,700 tonnes of the highly explosive ammonium nitrate, the equivalent of 1,155 tonnes of TNT, was according to Lebanese security officials stored in a warehouse in the port. The hazardous shipment, confiscated in 2014 from a Russian-owned cargo ship, was lying there for the past six years! Port officials claim that they had requested several times to have the shipment removed but “no one listened”. The military police arrested 16 port staff on Thursday, pending an investigation into the cause of the disaster and to determine the real culprits.
Lebanon’s civil war and its fallout
I doubt we will know who the real culprits are. But all the Lebanese know them. They are the same people who have been running the country for the past 30 years — since the end of the civil war. It is necessary to indict and punish the sloppy and most likely corrupt port officials. But it would not be enough. It would not be justice. To get real justice, the entire era of the last 30 years must stand trial — the corrupt, rotten and inefficient state and its leaders.
The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), started after years of political tension between the several communal factions. The Muslims complained that the Maronites controlled the state and most of the jobs. The Christians, on the other hand, opposed the government decision to host the Palestinian armed factions following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in June 1967.
The nation was falling apart and the political tension simmering when on April 13, 1975, a bus carrying Lebanese and Palestinian civilians was attacked in the East Beirut suburb of Ain Al Rumannah following an argument with church guards, who belong to a Christian militia. They opened fire, killing 27 passengers. It was claimed that the massacre was in retaliation to an earlier attack on the nearby church. The massacre was all what the political rivals needed to set the nation on fire. Three decades of war, massacres and mass destruction cost Lebanon more than 100,000 lives and nearly 1 million people were displaced. Thousands of people remain missing to this day.
For the past 30 years, [the] same militia leaders occupied the key positions, divided among them the country’s revenue, and paid money to buy loyalty.
In 1990, Saudi Arabia hosted a national conference in which the rival factions agreed to end the war, elect a new parliament, form a national unity government and write a new political charter, Al Taif Agreement, in which the Muslims and Christians got equal share of the Parliament seats and cabinet positions. It was a miracle.
But there is an inherently fatal flaw in this agreement, for which Lebanon continues to pay a high price. It was signed and, of course, implemented by the same militia leaders who led ruthless armed groups that committed gruesome massacre for years. The new chapter also stipulated that all crimes committed during the war are pardoned. The militias won, and the Lebanese people lost, again. For the sake of ‘social peace’ and reconciliation, the war ended without accountability. No one was questioned. On the contrary, the warlords arrived back in Lebanon in 1990 as the new statesmen. They must have taken off their uniforms on the plane.
And for the past 30 years, these same militia leaders occupied the key positions, divided among them the country’s revenue, and paid money to buy loyalty.
Moreover, while the Taif Agreement disarmed all the militias, it allowed one militia, Hezbollah, to keep its arms ‘because its arms are meant to defend the country against Israel’, it was said. However, as the only armed group in the country, Hezbollah has become the de facto kingmaker. No one dares to oppose a powerful group that has more sophisticated weapons than the national army. When Hezbollah invaded Beirut in 2007, nobody was able to push it back. And nobody was able to hold the group accountable.
An international court was scheduled to issue its verdict few days after the port blast (it was postponed for 10 days) in the case against four of its members in the assassination of former Prime Minster Rafik Hariri in 2005 — another epic event that shook the country’s fundamentals. The Lebanese government could not be trusted to handle the case and it was assigned to a special international tribunal.
Again, the total absence of the state. There is no state. There are only former and current militia leaders who pursue their own narrow financial and political interests.
For the past 30 years, these leaders failed or perhaps didn’t want to develop a viable, functioning state. The Lebanese are among the most educated, talented and entrepreneurial people in the world. But they have been failed by the system — a flawed system that led to the civil war and the one that took over after the war.
The corrupt system and those on top of it are the real culprits of the port explosion. They are the ones that should be put on trial. If that happens in Lebanon, Macron won’t need to come back in September.