Lebanese-American Socialist and Marx21 member M. N. Dahan looks at the social upheaval in Lebanon following the explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, exploring how these protests fit into the country’s turbulent recent history.
The horrific blast that leveled Beirut and laid bare the incompetence and unfathomable corruption of the ruling class brought tens of thousands of protesters back out on the streets. Protests started on Thursday, on Saturday night they confronted the police and military at Martyrs Square, were back on Sunday, and the escalating protests forced the resignation of the entire government within four days. This reprisal of the months of protests and occupations of the squares now famously known as the October revolution comes as no surprise. The anger we saw back in the fall has now become seething fury.
In the early evening of August 4, a huge explosion at the port of Beirut rained death and destruction through most of the city. The blast was felt for miles around, way up into the mountains of Lebanon and over to the island of Cyprus, some 160 miles away. It registered at 3.5 on the Richter scale, and at first felt like an earthquake, but then the mushroom-cloud rose and started to blow through the city. In fact, there were two explosions: the first resulted in a column of smoke and a series of bangs and flashes from fireworks. Unfortunately, these fireworks had been stored right next to another shed that contained 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrates. (Just to get an idea of scale, the Oklahoma City bombing that leveled a federal building in 1995 contained a mere 2 tons of nitrates.)
The second explosion killed everyone who had rushed to help. The blast blew windows and doors and cars and devastated everything in its path in a matter of minutes. Shards of glass became lethal projectiles and sliced through human flesh. For a population already at the end of its tether, exhausted from the ravages of an economy in free fall, a currency at less than 20% of its former value, skyrocketing unemployment, and of course the COVID-19 pandemic still making its way through the country, this was indeed the last straw.
They were warned, but did nothing
This immense tragedy was no accident. It was nothing more than the “consequence of the cumulative incompetence, corruption, lassitude, amateurism and uncaring attitude by successive Lebanese governments.” These chemicals, mainly used as fertilizer are stable under normal conditions but extremely dangerous if disturbed. How they got there was a byzantine story as only Lebanon could produce. In 2014, a shipment of ammonium nitrate belonging to a Russian oligarch, on its way to Mozambique was confiscated because the owner refused to pay some fee to the Port Authority of Beirut. Numerous letters from port officials, stressing the extremely dangerous nature of these chemicals, were sent to the judges in the six years that followed, but nothing was done. Instead, this unimaginable tragedy happened. The images and videos are horrific, a whole section of the city completely leveled. The body count is still growing as people are digging into the rubble, and will probably reach into the hundreds with thousands gravely wounded. 300,000 people have been left homeless, the city completely ravaged as a tornado of glass and steel tore a path through buildings and homes. Even hospitals weren’t spared: 12 patients, 2 visitors and four nurses were killed inside the St-George hospital, a mile and a half away from the blast, with 80% of the building and 50% of its equipment damaged.
Total damages are estimated in billions of dollars at a time when the country is reeling from economic meltdown. Countries around the world are offering first aid as well as financial aid, though “aid” often contains onerous strings attached to it. The United States is offering a paltry sum of $15 million, with the caveat that none of it should go to Hezbollah, the Shiite group they have labeled a terrorist organization for its anti-Israel stance. Neither the aid of the Western Imperialist powers who created this dysfunctional system, nor the government of Iran, a regional power with it’s own interests, have the working people of Lebanon in mind as they intervene.
It was probably not a mistake, but another bold-faced lie when Trump tried to describe the blast as an attack, even though “our great generals” did not at all back the idea that it was an attack. This was yet another attempt to rile up his base, and as Rami Khouri suggests was prompted by the fundamentalist Christian extremists in his administration with their own Islamophobic project closely linked to the Israeli settler state.
With Lebanon’s heavy reliance on imports for its foodstuffs, medicine and pretty much everything else, to the tune of 80% of its consumption, the loss of the port is a massive blow. Silos containing 15,000 tons of wheat and 10,000 tons of corn vaporized in less than a minute. Food that had already been in short supply and at prices the poor could not afford is now going to be a scarcity. The already shaky infrastructure of Lebanon with its perennial power and water cuts, its garbage disposal crisis, the pollution of its sea and much more, is now in shambles. In fact, there had been several recent protests against power cuts in Beirut, the last one being on the very morning of the blast when protesters clashed with the police. The government quickly imposed a two-week national emergency, but this did little to stop people from taking to the streets.
The October Revolution
After the initial period of protests in October which had an air of festivity about them, the state started to push back. There were violent clashes with the police and militias of some of the ruling parties, and eventually the protesters were forced back because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, we saw important political breakthroughs during this period. First, the whole of the government was targeted by protesters who demanded that “all of them” should resign. This was the most popular chant and the most significant as it was the first real attempt to break down the sectarian divisions that had rendered impotent the Lebanese working class. The protesters also fought to include all who lived in Lebanon, with its sizable Syrian refugee population estimated at 1.5 million and the more established Palestinian population. Again, this was of enormous importance as the ruling class’s major tool to divide and rule with the use of racism and xenophobia was starting to show cracks. In the event, only the Prime Minister, the billionaire playboy Saad Hariri, resigned, and after months of squabbling, a new one was elected. Hassan Diab was chosen with the approval of Hezbollah and because of his background as a technocrat. But really, no one expected anything would change. The crisis continued to deepen as these successive Lebanese governments “brought people to the point of pauperization.”
All of the Middle East has seen a wave of protests and rebellions, perhaps best epitomized by the Arab Spring in 2011. The anger building in the region has fought to try to “establish a legitimate credible humanistic government” Egypt was of course remembered for the months-long rebellion centered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square which managed to topple the dictator Hosni Mobarak. Unfortunately, the revolt was pushed back and today’s dictator Abdel-Fatah Al -Sisi is certainly no better. Nonetheless, the revolts spread throughout the Middle East, shaking many powerful rulers, from North Africa all the way to the Gulf States.
Unfortunately, none of these rebellions succeeded, and one of the most tragic ones was in Syria where the dictator Bashar al Assad was able to hold onto power, leading to one of the most brutal civil wars of the recent past. And yet, 2019 saw a resurgence of rebellions and struggles, this time especially in Sudan and Algeria, Lebanon of course, and Iraq and Iran.
Ruling Class Corruption
The working class of the region has had enough of these autocratic regimes that have done nothing but enrich themselves at dizzying levels. They are totally disgusted by the levels of corruption that have siphoned off all the wealth of the region while providing nothing in terms of social services and infrastructure. The neoliberal policies imposed meant more privatization and austerity while shareholders lined their pockets with profits. The private banks played a particularly nefarious role in Lebanon, acting more as loan sharks who owned large portions of the country’s debt. As the country could not begin to repay its debt, the Lebanese pound fell precipitously from LL1500 to today’s LL9000 to the US dollar. Considering that the country imports such a large percentage of its needs, the extent of people’s immiseration (and the anger that goes along with it) becomes very clear.
In conversations I had with Beirutis, one feels the seething rage and a palpable anger bubbling just below the surface. These include people who had not been particularly political in the past. But this horrific explosion which they lay squarely at the feet of the ruling class, has made it clear these venal rulers will not lift a finger unless it is of benefit to themselves. And people are now accepting the fact that the only way to rid the country of such endemic corruption by those in power is to overthrow the whole lot of them.
And so, 2019 has proved to be just a chapter in the continuing struggle against this murderous ruling class. “They think they’re getting off the hook,” Ali Fadlallah, an electrical engineer from south Beirut, told the Guardian. “They aren’t and they won’t. None of them this time. (my emphasis)” He continued: “This is a conflagration of all that is wrong with Lebanon,” said Falaha. “Centred on corruption of the political system, state institutions, the security apparatus and the judiciary… This is a moment of reckoning like no other, and a failure to seize it will lead to the absolute failure of the Lebanese state.”
Protests erupted on Thursday, less than 48 hours after the explosion. Crowds of people surrounded Macron, the French President as he toured the worst-hit parts of the city. Protesters chanted for “revolution” and called upon the government to resign. Two days later, on Saturday, over 10,000 protesters again converged on Martyrs Square and tried to force their way through the blocked streets around Parliament, where the government was meeting. They were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and 65 people were taken to nearby hospitals. Nonetheless, they had managed to occupy several ministerial buildings and hung effigies of government figures and banners calling for revolution.
The resignations from the Cabinet, and of Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Monday, show the power of the protests on the street. The protesters are clear that the appointed replacement, or the empty promises of new elections, is not enough. The protesters want to dismantle the entire sectarian system of government that had divided the country into fiefdoms to be ruled at will by their religious figureheads. They want the whole power structure to be overthrown. “All of them” should apply not just to the departing government, but the entire ruling class who have been bleeding dry the rest of the country for their own gain. As Shadi Alame, 29, told the Washington Post: “The whole system was to blame, from top to bottom. It’s all the politicians. They are stealing everyone’s money, stealing people’s rights.” Here’s a 56-year old woman on the same protest with her son who explained why they had little left to lose: “They stole from us, they looted us, they made us go hungry, they made us poor. We were going to die in our own house.” To which her son rejoined: “We were already dying slowly.”
We can be sure this is the first salvo of this round in the class war between those who have been oppressed for too long and those who have taken everything away from them. The “You Stink!” Protests of 2015 and the larger protests that started in October but were cut short by Covid-19 have prepared people to begin again from a higher level. The demands have escalated. Back then, they were asking the government to change. “At first we were asking them. We had demands. But today we’re not asking anymore; we are acting, we are taking back what is ours.”
M. N. Dahan