The worst ever explosion in Lebanon’s history, on Tuesday in Beirut’s port, caused horrific devastation of both life and infrastructure. Over 157 people were killed, many are missing and around 5,000 injured. The whole port was completely destroyed and glass and balconies were blown off buildings across the city, in a blast heard as far away as Cyprus and Damascus.
The deaths and injuries from the explosion are only the start of the immense human suffering that will result from it. Estimates of the number made homeless have been as high as half a million. The port was the main route for food imports into the country, so more hunger – already rising before this event – is expected. There will also be risks to health from the cancer-causing chemicals that were propelled into the air, and fewer hospitals to treat the injured and affected, as hospitals were among the buildings destroyed.
This terrible disaster comes at a time of deep economic crisis in Lebanon, recently exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The reaction on the streets was almost immediately one of great anger. It was quickly clear that the catastrophe was not an unavoidable accident – the initially known facts point to criminal negligence, at best. A vast quantity of highly explosive ammonium nitrate had been confiscated from a ship and incredibly was just left in a warehouse in the port for six years. The head of Lebanese customs, Badri Daher, claims that he sent six letters to the judiciary over the years to ask for a decision to either resell, export or put to use the explosive material.
Firefighters who courageously went to tackle the first reported flames were killed by the massive second blast that subsequently followed. It has also been working class people who have been in the frontline of the search and clean-up operations and who have arranged help for the homeless. Some have done this as part of the austerity-weakened public services but in most cases, it has been done on a voluntary basis.
There is huge anger, bitterness and a revolutionary mood. Alongside the rescue work, protests immediately restarted against the corrupt elite who were conspicuously in hiding, fearful of the people.
“What state? … Where are they?” said Melissa Fadlallah to an Agence France-Presse journalist while she was sweeping up glass, “We’re trying to fix this country. We’ve been trying to fix it for nine months but now we’re going to do it our way”, she added. Another, Mohammad Suyur, who was also sweeping up debris, expressed the outrage people feel towards government officials: “They’re all sitting in their chairs in the AC [air conditioning] while people are wearing themselves out in the street. The last thing in the world they care about is this country and the people who live in it. We can’t bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go”. He said that activists would resume the protest movement that began last autumn.
2019 sweeping movement
He was referring to the sweeping movement that broke out in September 2019, growing to involve 1.3 million people, 20% of the entire population. One of the triggers was a new tax on the use of WhatsApp and other voice-over-internet social media platforms. But deep-rooted anger on many issues surfaced: lack of services and jobs, blatant corruption, food price inflation, deteriorating infrastructure – it would be hard to think of an aspect of society that wasn’t a cause of discontent. The lack of services included the fire service, which didn’t have the equipment needed to put out the devastating wildfires burning at that time.
A huge gap between rich and poor was also a driving factor: the top 0.1%, around 3,000 people, earn roughly the same amount of national income as the bottom 50%, around 2 million people. All of these issues have driven the demonstrators to demand an end to the present ‘political system’ and total change.
It is no surprise that Lebanon was among the first countries to have a re-emergence of struggle following the outbreak of Covid-19. As early as April 2020 protesters were back out on the streets, after a month of holding back, forced to by the conditions of poverty and hunger they were facing.
The demonstrators have united across the sectarian religious divides, a great step forward in a country that was once torn apart by sectarian bloodshed and whose political system is officially based upon religious politics.
The UK Guardian newspaper quotes a retired military general, Khalil Hellou, as saying: “The credibility of this ruling class is done, finished. Even their supporters do not believe in them. There is no strategy, no clear mission and no vision” (6.8.20).
The government could again be forced out, as the last one was, but what will replace it if the movement does not organise to take the future into its own hands? A vacuum exists.
Emergency action committees need to be democratically elected immediately in all communities and workplaces, that can link together to organise support and solidarity actions, supervise aid, food and shelter to all those affected and discuss the way forward.
In addition, the mass movement had already illustrated the need for a non-sectarian, working-class political party that will be independent of all pro-capitalist bodies and interests. Such a party is urgently needed. It would need to discuss and draw up an action plan to deal with the rebuilding of lives and infrastructure following the catastrophe, linked to a programme of socialist demands to genuinely and completely transform society. One of the crucial demands would need to be for a revolutionary constituent assembly where genuine delegates from working people should decide to replace the entire present political system with a new government consisting of delegates from workplaces and local communities, accountable to those who elect them and subject to recall at any time by the vote of those who elect them.
Developments in that direction – towards Lebanon’s working class leading the way in transforming society – are what the Lebanese capitalists and their friends internationally are determined to try to prevent.
French President Emmanuel Macron rushed to Beirut after the port explosion to find himself surrounded by calls for a revolution to bring down the present regime. He felt compelled to respond: “I can’t initiate a revolution, it is up to the Lebanese people. I will support the people but I will not interfere in Lebanese politics”. However, with these words, he is posturing and positioning himself to try to make sure a revolutionary movement stays within safe limits for capitalism – i.e. does not move to overthrow it. Far from not interfering, he is at the forefront of the attempts by the western powers to intervene and it can be added that no doubt in his own case, he wants to make use of the situation to deflect attention from his plight and problems in France.
His interference on behalf of French capitalism – a former colonial ‘master’ of Lebanon – is partly through using aid as a bribe and tool. He declared: “Aid will not go into corrupt hands. I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact”. In addition, more influential interference has been through other economic means. As the UK Times explained: “In recent months France has led the way in proposing a package of economic support in return for structural reforms to deal with the country’s financial crisis” (7.8.20). The so-called structural reforms are a reference to attacks on the public sector and cuts in subsidies to ordinary people which are demanded by the IMF as the price for a bailout.
It is not just representatives of French imperialism who are rushing to be seen to reflect the popular mood in Lebanon and declare that ‘change’ needs to take place, but Lebanon’s own ruling elite is acting similarly. Following the port explosion, Bahaa Hariri, a son of former prime minister Rafic Hariri and brother of Saad Hariri, the prime minister forced out by the protest movement in January 2020, said: “This symbiotic, bankrupt relationship between officials and warlords must come to an end. And it will come to an end. We need an international investigation that is not under the control of the government”.
The calls for an international investigation, made here by a wealthy member of the Hariri dynasty, are smokescreens. Certainly, the Lebanese people have no trust in the country’s own institutions on any account, including the ability to deliver a genuine investigation and justice. As journalist Robert Fisk pointed out in the UK Independent newspaper (5.8.20): “Not one major political murder in Lebanon – of presidents, prime minister or ex-prime minister, of members of parliament or political parties – has ever, in its history, been solved”.
Recognising this, the NGO Human Rights Watch has also called for “international experts to conduct an independent investigation”.
However, international investigators would be confined to the parameters set by the interests of the capitalist governments who appoint them – who in turn sponsor one side or another in the sectarian power struggle at the top of Lebanese society. They would also only have access to information in Beirut that the local authority and government there choose to give them. This, with the background that virtually all of the Lebanese politicians presently in power are regarded as crooks by the population.
Only an investigation by representatives from workers’ organisations – including trade unions – could get to the bottom of what has taken place, through conducting a democratically-run inquiry that would have to be independent of all capitalist and establishment interests.
Workers’ representatives also need to examine how the elite and big business has plundered the economy and left the central bank effectively bankrupt. The dire economic situation was worsened by the 2008-09 world crisis and the war in neighbouring Syria and has now been hit further by the coronavirus pandemic.
In May, the Financial Times (UK) summed up the resulting situation as: “70% of the assets of a bloated banking system were lent to an insolvent and kleptocratic state, which last month defaulted on its foreign debt” (4.5.20).
Lebanon’s currency has plummeted at dramatic speed in recent months, taking away the savings of ordinary people with it. It is officially pegged at 1,500 Lebanese lira to one US dollar; but it has sunk in reality to as low as 10,000 to the dollar.
Meanwhile, the super-rich has moved billions of dollars into relative safe havens abroad.
Among the measures a new workers’ party would need to include in its programme would be nationalisation of the banks and other financial institutions, repudiation of foreign debts and capital controls on large movements of money.
So far, the ruling layer has made only very limited concessions to the protest movement. These have included the main political parties changing their representatives in government. Salaries of ministers were reduced by 50% and those of judges and government officials were capped.
The sectarian power-sharing system – brought in at the end of the 1975-90 civil war – remains intact. It is dressed up as ‘democracy’ but is seen by ordinary people as consisting of 18 ‘mini-dictatorships’. The figure 18 is the number of officially recognised sects, among whose leading elements the power is shared. Many of them are family dynasties based on a particular branch of religion and corrupt patronage networks.
Prime minister Hassan Diab and president Michel Aoun, clearly keen to deflect blame for the explosion away from the government, have said that those to blame will be made to pay for it. However, it has appeared that the root cause of the disaster was mainly the criminal negligence of the authorities – right up to the very top – which meant the explosive material was left in the heart of the city.
There has been speculation that the warehouse was initially set alight accidentally by a spark from a welder or maybe by fireworks, which might have been the case. There has also been speculation over whether the initial fire was started by terrorists, or possibly by agents of the Israeli state. The Israeli government quickly denied any involvement, but it is not outside the realms of possibility that it could have been trying to prevent the ammonium nitrate ending up in the hands of Hezbollah – which is a central player in the Lebanese government and viewed as a major enemy by the Israeli regime. The western media is quick to condemn any possible Israeli involvement as fake news, but when commenting on recent unexplained explosions in Iran, it has been more open. For example, the Washington Post wrote last month: “Israeli involvement in the Natanz explosion would not be surprising”, Natanz being an Iranian nuclear site.
Whatever the truth behind the terrible Beirut explosion, the suffering on many different accounts being endured by the overwhelming majority of people in Lebanon – the 99.9% – including Palestinian refugees from Israel-Palestine and more recently 1.5 million Syrian refugees, must be brought to an end through workers’ unity and struggle.
Robert Fisk wrote of Lebanon: “So here is one of the most educated nations in the region with the most talented and courageous – and generous and kindliest – of peoples, blessed by snows and mountains and Roman ruins and the finest food and the greatest intellect and a history of millennia. And yet it cannot run its currency, supply its electric power, cure its sick or protect its people.”
His first sentence is apt, and the second one too, if slightly adjusted to change the subject of it. It is not ‘Lebanon’ that cannot run its country; rather it is its decadent, rotten and rapacious ruling class that cannot do so. Removing it is an urgent task of the workers’ movement, which would colossally inspire the downtrodden masses across the Middle East and beyond, bringing forward the day in which they too can turn the tables of power.