Don't simply blame 'corruption' for the Beirut blast

Don't simply blame 'corruption' for the Beirut blast
11 min read
04 Aug, 2021
Opinion: While blaming 'corruption' provides a singular and moralistic explanation for the tragedy, it fails to advance the quest for justice and accountability, writes Habib Battah.
The August 2020 Beirut blast caused at least 218 deaths, 7,500 injuries, and $15bn in property damage, leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. [Getty]

The word "corruption" features in almost every news report or analysis about Beirut since the enormous chemical explosion that devastated a large section of the city last year. 

Whether in television appearances by distinguished experts or in articles published by world-leading news organisations, the terms "ruling elites" or "corrupt ruling class" are ubiquitous in explaining the blast that killed over 200 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

"Simple explanations call for simple solutions. If corruption is the problem, then good behaviour is the solution"

In fact, an entire media and political discourse have been built around the concept of corruption to explain not only the port tragedy but the three decades of post-war dysfunction that preceded and enabled it. 

While this level of analysis offers a satisfyingly singular and moralistic explanation for the tragedy, it fails to advance the quest for justice and accountability, both for the victims and to prevent such an epic human disaster from repeating itself.

'Corruption' is a buzzword

The problem with the concept of corruption is that it functions similarly to the concept of terrorism. Both are very powerful terms but neither describes anything specific or tangible. They do not shed light on the details of a particular financial scheme or criminal activity. Neither do they identify the parties responsible, who, how, or why they have done it. 

On the contrary, the weight of these terms lies in their vagueness. Like curse words, they provide bursts of indignation and emotional relief, unburdened by contextualised or nuanced explanations. They untangle this mess of conflicting narratives by reducing the analysis to who is right and who is wrong.

The reductive exercise of assigning blame is cathartic, especially in times of grief and anger. But herein lies the danger: simple explanations call for simple solutions. If corruption is the problem, then good behaviour is the solution. What is so attractive about these emotionally charged explanations is that they locate the problems outside of ourselves. The problem is with them, "all of them," to paraphrase a popular Beirut protest slogan.

But while many activists, journalists, and pundits position themselves as a secular alternative to a "corrupt sectarian system", their arguments are often based on the concept of a moral high ground. The battle between the good and the "evil-doers" as coined by former US president George W Bush, in his "War on Terror" doctrine, was not a unique piece of political rhetoric, but one repeated throughout history, used to justify countless wars and conquests, from subjugating natives to making the world safe for Western economic and security interests. 

A war on corruption as a vague concept has similar pitfalls.

Reaction to the Beirut blast

The Beirut port explosion is one of nearly 50 ammonium nitrate explosions that have occurred across the world in the last century and one of thousands of industrial chemical disasters, many of which bore much greater human and environmental casualties. However, unlike these other explosions, where the coverage and discourse are limited to the parties directly involved in the operation and regulation of the hazardous materials, the Beirut blast has been read as grounds for a radical political change, reaching across the entire Lebanese political spectrum. 

This is because the explosion came amid deep political instability and an economic crash that has seen Lebanon's currency lose over 90% of its value, an exponential rise in prices of food, and severe fuel, electricity, water, and medicine shortages. The explosion was read as the latest symptom of a specifically Lebanese disease, not as a relatively common global event with a very common flammable fertiliser material.

"Western governments also sensed an opportunity to meet long-standing policy objectives of isolating Lebanon's ruling coalition due to its alliance with Hezbollah"

At the time of the blast last August, nationwide protests over Lebanon's economic disaster, sparked by a new tax proposal, had begun to wane, both due to police repression and the spread of Covid-19. The magnitude of the explosion gave the demonstrators a new impetus. 

Western governments also sensed an opportunity to meet long-standing policy objectives of isolating Lebanon's ruling coalition due to its alliance with Hezbollah, among the greatest opponents to Western policy interests in the oil-rich region. They sent emissaries with messages of solidarity to Lebanese people, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who descended upon the streets of Beirut hugging victims and assuring protestors of a "new political pact" for the former colony. (Despite the rhetoric, both Macron and US diplomats also met privately with some of the country's top leaders and Western clients). Meanwhile, human rights organisations, also based in the West, called for an international investigation, alleging a corrupt judiciary.

infographic - Beirut Blast

In the months that followed, and as inflation worsened, global financial organisations called for urgent reform to "unlock" international aid and loan packages. Again, rooting out corruption was supposedly the only condition. The World Bank went so far as to label the country's economic demise as a "deliberate" act. But what type of leadership would wish economic ruin upon its own electorate, especially when many of the country's leaders are business owners themselves?

Who are 'all of them'?

For many in the protest movement, Lebanese leadership has become that caricature of evil, epitomised by the popular slogan "kilon yani kilon" which roughly translates to "all of them must go." 

Although it is constantly heard in demonstrations, and picked up regularly by local and foreign media outlets, there are various interpretations of what this phrase actually means, revealing predictable schisms among the anti-government movement. 

While some protestors have reduced "all means all" to the leaders of the six biggest political parties, excluding some prominent names, others cast a much wider net claiming "all of them" applies to the entire "ruling class." 

"The simplistic notion of 'the regime' cannot be contained in individual leaders but rather in systems that transcend them"

Once again the danger lies in the vagueness of the terminology. What are the parameters of this so-called "class"? Does it encompass the current cabinet of ministers and the 128 members of parliament or the dozens of prominent tribal leaders and leadership positions among dozens of political parties and their thousands of members? Does it assume a separation between a political ruling class and an economic ruling class?

Of course, the idea that a country's political environment can somehow be overturned is not restricted to Lebanon. "All means all" functions similarly to the call heard during the last decade of regional uprisings, namely "The people demand the downfall of the regime". But as evidenced by the devolution of what many had seen as hopeful protests into violent conflicts and resurgent police states across Syria, Libya, and Egypt, dictatorships are not easily toppled. 

Here again, the simplistic notion of "the regime" cannot be contained in individual leaders but rather in systems that transcend them. This is even more complicated in a place like Lebanon where "the regime" does not consist of one party but several competing ones, entrenched by decades of conflict. All of this points to a fundamental structural problem that transcends individual moral behaviour.

Is Lebanon a state?

While many dismiss Lebanon as a failed or corrupted state, it is more accurate to understand it as a fragmented state. Describing Lebanon as a state, and expecting it to function as one, belies the reality that no single party is really in charge of the country. 

If anything, Lebanon is more of an unsettled conflict, an uneasy truce between long-warring factions, an accident waiting to happen.

And make no mistake, Lebanon is still at war, both with its neighbours and itself. To the south, there is an open flashpoint with Israel, which has bombed or invaded the country nearly every decade of the last half-century. To the east, Syria, which has also long occupied the country, is a cauldron of violence that has drawn Lebanese fighters, as well as driving over a million refugees over the borders. 

Conflicting views over these multiple border conflicts have only added fuel to internal political divisions, especially as major world powers pour money and arms to the opposing sides. While Iran and Syria invest billions in Hezbollah, the US and its allies pour billions into the Lebanese army and security services.

"Describing Lebanon as a state belies the reality that no single party is really in charge of the country. If anything, Lebanon is more of an unsettled conflict, an uneasy truce between long-warring factions, an accident waiting to happen"

It is this deliberate feeding of Lebanon's deep internal divisions that keeps it mired in perpetual paralysis. Every decision, every project to help repair the country's ailing infrastructure is treated as a renegotiation of the civil war and a redivision of its spoils. Councils or institutions needed to plan economic recovery strategies, develop competitive industries, act as a regulator to ensure fair competition are stymied by this tug of war: who will be appointed to their boards and who will do the appointing? Any negotiation must be approved by the patron powers that sustain and arm their positions.

Had there been a functioning public safety board to provide oversight to the port's inventory, to ensure hazardous materials were properly stored, the 4 August tragedy could have been avoided. Had there been oversight and centralised planning of public services, perhaps Lebanon would not have run out of fuel and medicine. Had there been competitive local manufacturing industries, the country would not have to rely so heavily on imports and its currency not so terribly destroyed by a heavily lopsided balance of payments. 

Perspectives

These are all the luxuries of stability, taken for granted in high-performing economies. Who wants to invest in a war zone where nothing works? Failure to take this context into consideration and examine the complicated power dynamics at play leads us down the path of reductive adjectives: ignorant, incompetent, corrupt. This may soothe the pain but it does not change the power dynamics on the ground.

What should activists do?

Those interested in contributing to a change in Lebanon must approach the task with both humility and realism. If activists intend to seek power, they must take the competition seriously. The decades of elections that have put Lebanon's ruling parties into power are not insignificant, as many claim. As in any electoral system, solid organisation and funding are required to win, both of which have been severely lacking among the protest movement.

Another perilous misconception advanced largely by protest youth is that conflicts and positions that divide ruling parties are meaningless, made-up lies to cloak conspiracies of cooperation. In reality, the battlegrounds have been fought on for generations and the victims that have laid down their lives for them are very real.

"Just as the anger over those who have perished motivates the current desire to depose the powerful, the rage of wars past helped construct the militias and ruling parties of the present"

For every poster of a civilian killed during the port explosion, there are many others killed over the decades in gruesome massacres and air raids that have flattened wide swathes of the city. Just as the anger over those who have perished motivates the current desire to depose the powerful, the rage of wars past helped construct the militias and ruling parties of the present. 

Today's tyrants and militiamen once viewed themselves as revolutionaries.

A central challenge with youth politics, while often romanticised, is a lack of institutional memory and self-awareness. Today's activists should fight off the urge to label previous generations with dehumanising pejoratives: "hostages" or "sheep" lacking wisdom or foresight, responsible for today's dysfunction. 

By the same token, today's youth must be conscious of their own subjectivities. It is nearly impossible to be born in Lebanon and be free from the genealogies of its wars. It is hard to imagine a family free of a cousin or uncle or parent that fought or benefited from the country's many wars and transferred those privileges or biases to the next generation.

An anti-government protester stands on top of a pile of broken tents in Martyrs' Square on 29 October, 2019 in Beirut. [Getty]
An anti-government protester stands on top of a pile of broken tents in Martyrs' Square on 29 October, 2019 in Beirut. [Getty]

Where and how one's ancestors lived, and whom they fought or allied with can determine a lot about our own geographies. And in Lebanon, geography can go a long way to determine our political fears and priorities: which militias ran the neighbourhoods we live in, which foreign powers occupied our streets. 

Even the Lebanese education system, where the best schools are based on French or American curriculums, carry inherent dispositions that may not be easy to detect. What we are taught as modern will influence what we define as backwards. What doors our degrees and languages open may determine what institutions or employers provide our livelihoods and opportunities. Self-awareness can help us understand the actions and motivations of others and what it could take to change them.

With so many sources of hardship in Lebanon today, it is understandable to be frustrated or enraged, or even to seek revenge. But it is also important to take a step back and realise this pain is not entirely new, the savagery of war has plagued Lebanon for nearly every decade of its century-old existence. And that existence has not been created by Lebanese alone. 

Lebanon's political landscape was forged out of the cold wars and proxy battles that have shaped our world. Every Lebanese generation bears its scars and demons. But in the absence of a genuine desire for reconciliation and contextual understanding, vague and morally loaded arguments will only fuel further cycles of violence. 

Habib Battah is an investigative journalist, political analyst and founder of beirutreport.com. He has covered Lebanon and the Middle East for over 18 years, contributing to The Guardian, BBC News, Al Jazeera English, CNN, Fortune, Jacobin and others. He is a former journalist fellow at Oxford University and the American University of Beirut, where he also teaches journalism and media studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @habib_b

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.