The Beirut port explosion – one year on

Huge damage after the Beirut explosion, August 2020 (Photo: Mahdi Shojaeian/Wikimedia commons)

A year ago, a huge devastating explosion started at Beirut’s port and ended with the loss of over 200 lives, with 7,500 injured and around 300,000 people made homeless. That evening of 4 August 2020 will continue to be seen as the moment when the rank corruption of Lebanon’s sectarian political system and bourgeois rule caused an avoidable tragedy.

On the surface, it is easy to suggest that nothing fundamentally has changed over the last year. No one has yet been prosecuted for the tragedy of 4 August 2020. Instead, the past few months have seen the families of the victims of the explosion, and their supporters, lobbying the Interior Ministry demanding that the judge inquiring into the tragedy interrogates the Director-General of Public Security, amongst others currently protected under immunities.

The already dire economic and social situation, at the time of the explosion, has careened even further out of control. Alongside the further decline of the Lebanese currency, has now come huge price rises and massive shortages of almost everything, including basic essential medicines. Wildfires have been raging in the countryside in the last few days.

As a Guardian (London, 31/7/21) highlighted: “In the year since Beirut began picking up the pieces, the Lebanese currency has plunged 15-fold in value. Hyperinflation has put staple foods out of reach of much of its population. Vital medicines can no longer be found – on Friday a four-year-old girl died from a scorpion sting because anti-venom was out of stock. And there is not enough fuel to supply the underfunded electricity sector or the private generator mafia that plugs the gap, charging exorbitant prices to do so.”

Although the technocratic government of Hassan Diab was forced to resign as a result of the explosion, no replacement has been yet formed. The prime minister overthrown by the mass protests of October 2019, Saad Hariri, was initially selected as prime minister-designate. But after 10 months of wrangling over ministers’ portfolios, particularly with Lebanese President Michel Aoun of the Christian Maronite Free Patriotic Movement and the Shia-based Hezbollah, Hariri finally resigned, unable, as we suggested, able to form a government.

His replacement as prime minister-designate is Najib Mikati, also a former prime minister, as well as being the richest man in Lebanon, with a wealth of around $2.5bn. Mikati is perhaps one of the few people who could fill the post, which is mandated to be filled by a Sunni, according to Lebanon’s sectarian-based constitution, who would be acceptable to both Aoun and Hezbollah, having formed a previous government with them in 2011.

Mikati aims to form a government and thereby unlock some of the aid from various foreign governments, much of which has been verbally predicated on the formation of a government, to at least alleviate the worst of the current crisis. The western imperialist powers may content themselves with imposing sanctions on some leading politicians (especially Hezbollah-linked), as the US has done. But, a Mikati government, as we said of the formation of a government under Hariri, “offers no solution to the Lebanese masses. They will be expected to suffer further for the stabilisation of the profits of the Lebanese capitalists and imperialism.”

What way forward for workers and youth?

A Mikati government, formed on this basis, would perpetuate the patronage and corruption that has gone before it, including under governments he has headed in the past. Moreover, without a break from the capitalist system, which protects the profits of big business, above all, the ‘reforms’ demanded by imperialism would include cutbacks and privatizations, which would attack the living standards of the working class and poor of Lebanon even more.

Such attacks are bound to lead to mass opposition movements developing on the streets of Lebanon, once again, as working people refuse to be made the scapegoats again. Given Lebanon’s history of sectarian division and civil war, then the threat of new sectarian conflicts is implicit in the unstable situation in the country. Worryingly, there have been some tit-for-tat sectarian killings recently in the South of Beirut, between those from Shia and Sunni backgrounds, with the latest incident being the murder of five people at a funeral for a member of Hezbollah.

However, many of the mass demonstrations of the past two years have been marked by a distinct anti-sectarianism. The last year has also seen shifts develop in student unions and amongst the syndicates (unions) of professionals. This has included defeats for lists led by or combining many of the major sectarian parties (including, the Future Movement, Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, and Amal) in the Bar Association, last year. Most recently, in the Order of Engineers and Architects elections, in July, the “Order Revolts” candidate won 72% of the vote, following significant wins at lower levels of the association, including in Beirut, where the lead candidate was one of the parents of a child killed in last August’s explosion.

Alongside the developments of new independent unions, such developments point to the possibility of re-forging the workers’ movement in the country. The pressure developing from below will have been a key factor in the calling of a one-day general strike in June by the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL).

But rebuilding fighting organisations amongst workers and youth is only one part of the problem of how to break from the sectarian-dominated situation confronting Lebanon, as important is the question of independent working class political representation. Whilst elections are due under the current sectarian system in 2022, a key demand must be the convening of a revolutionary constituent assembly, based upon elected representatives from workplaces and communities, fully accountable and recallable by those who elect them with a programme to replace the current sectarian status quo, with a government representing the working class and poor.

A number of new parties and formations have sprung up in recent years on a non-sectarian basis. However, many are dominated by ideas of cross-class collaboration. Several are led by wealthy business people, who would be probably even more likely than the sectarian parties to attempt to carry out the savage attacks on working class living standards demanded by imperialism in return for aid.

In contrast, the policy of an independent non-sectarian workers’ party must be not only the tearing up of Lebanon’s sectarian constitution but the repudiation of debts run up by the sectarian parties and the rotten capitalist system they depend upon. A mass workers’ party should adopt socialist policies, including a monopoly of foreign trade, nationalisation of the banks, and other major monopolies under democratic workers’ control and management, amongst others.

Capitalism in Lebanon offers nothing but more misery and an increasingly desperate situation for working-class Lebanese people. Only a bold socialist alternative put forward by the workers’ movement, drawing the rest of the poor and oppressed of the country behind them, can offer a real way out of the sectarian nightmare in the country.

 

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