a protester faces police in beirut

A demonstrator with the Lebanese National Flag takes part in a demonstration against the political elites and the government, in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 8, 2020 after the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

September 22, 2020

Simon Goodacre | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

On 4 August, 2020, a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut, the Lebanese capital city, exploded, causing more than 190 deaths, 6,500 injuries, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. 

Many experts on Lebanese politics believe that the explosion was emblematic of ongoing governmental corruption in the country, including Kelly Stedem, a PhD candidate in the politics department and a Crown Center fellow. Stedem, an expert on Lebanese politics who has lived in Beirut and other parts of the country, discussed the explosion with us and what the aftermath could mean for the country's already charged political climate. Stedem recently defended her dissertation, which argues that political services in Lebanon operate on a “clientelistic” basis, meaning that the exchange of goods and services from the government are conditional on things like political support from citizens.

Stedem's work has been published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog, and she participated in a podcast with the Graduate School or Arts and Sciences last year to discuss Lebanese politics. In the interview below, she gives her thoughts on the current state of the country and its government. 

1.  We have all seen the footage of the explosion and images of the aftermath. What is the situation on the ground in Beirut now, four weeks later? What will be the primary challenges over the coming weeks and months? 

Although we’re over a month out from the explosion, in many ways it feels like Beirut is stuck in an on-going nightmare. The most important political challenge moving forward is to achieve justice and accountability. 2,750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate sat in the port for over 6 years with numerous officials from Lebanese Customs, the Port Authority, the Judiciary, the LAF, and likely heads of state well aware of their location and danger. The decision—either by negligence or malfeasance—to allow those materials to remain in the proximity of the city and residential areas makes all of these officials and leaders complicit in the destruction of Beirut. Unfortunately, it will be difficult, if not outright impossible, for the Lebanese to hold these individuals accountable while they remain in power.

Beyond politics, I think the most important challenge facing Lebanon—both over the short and long term—is the emotional and mental toll of “digging out” from the violence. Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the explosion, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. But beyond those horrific figures is the emotional trauma that the survivors face. I have read and heard numerous stories of individuals suffering from nightmares and anxiety, and children terrified of the “pink cloud.” Lebanon is no stranger to explosions, but this incident affected nearly the entirety of municipal Beirut and its environs. How to help hundreds of thousands move forward, both grieving those who were killed and addressing their own trauma, I think will be an ongoing struggle.

2.  Lebanon has been experiencing a great deal of political unrest throughout the past year, including the recent resignation of the Prime Minister, Saad Hariri. How did events develop in the months leading up to the explosion in Beirut?

On the political side, not a lot has changed. A new government headed by academic and technocat Hassan Diab was formed in January 2020. Diab’s appointment, as well as the inclusion of a few technocrats, was a means of appeasing protestors. In the aftermath of the explosion, a few (predominantly independent) MPs resigned and Diab was forced to resign at the end of August. The majority of the country’s political elite have refused to resign. They are instead calling for the appointment of a unity government and early elections as a solution. However, this “solution” will mean the same political elite that are responsible for the country’s corruption remain in power.

3.  Many journalists have suggested that this incident is emblematic of long term government mismanagement and corruption in Lebanon. Do you agree that these factors contributed to the explosion?  

Certainly. An interview with Professor Reinoud Leenders describes how governance and oversight of the port were derailed by infighting among the country’s political elite following the civil war. Essentially, each political alliance vyed to secure contracts for private companies that they backed, leading to the perpetuation of a temporary framework for governance of the port that lacked clear oversight and opened the door for corruption. 

What this meant in the practical sense is that political influence in the port made it easier for the politically connected to evade taxes, port officers to extract bribes, and for those with power to use the port to smuggle illegal or illicit items. 

There have been numerous excellent news reports tracking the history of the ammonium nitrate that exploded in the port, including a recent article in the NY Times. The ammonium nitrate was removed in 2013 from a Moldovan ship leased by a Russian businessman residing in Cyprus, the Rhosus, that was forced to dock in Beirut. As is apparently fairly common in international shipping, according to Professor Laleh Khalili, the owner abandoned the ship and its contents were then offloaded in the Beirut port. Despite numerous warnings of its danger, several requests sent to the Lebanese judiciary for approval to resell or move the bags of ammonium nitrate were ignored. Allegedly, they were sent to the incorrect office. (Anyone who has ever dealt with Lebanese government offices—be it General Security, the Municipality of Beirut, or even accessing the lost luggage room at the Beirut airport—knows that often involves being told to take documents from room to room with little clarity over why or where you’re going). 

Whether the requests were intentionally or unintentionally ignored, the lack of transparency and oversight that was created as a by-product of elite interests allowed highly explosive material to remain at the port for years.

4.  According to reports from Lebanon, there has been another wave of protests against political corruption in the country. What do you expect the outcome of these protests will be? 

Unlike the previous protests that spread across the country, the recent protests were centered in and around Beirut. I am not optimistic about the ability for these protests to enact change without widespread participation. There are numerous possibilities for why the protests have not spread geographically. The centralization of the destruction in Beirut is certainly one possible explanation. But I think the strain of combating the coronavirus pandemic as well as the economic crisis have exhausted the Lebanese. It’s a common trope that the Lebanese are ‘resilient’ and can bounce back from anything, but I think many Lebanese no longer want to be resilient. They want to be able to live without having to constantly contend with corrupt politics or violence. Moreover, many Lebanese are now concerned about basic survival given the dire economic need so many are facing. The economic crisis has given traditional political elites an advantage; they can use their established clientelistic networks to provide urgent necessities like food and medicine to their supporters.

5.  Do you think this explosion is a tipping point politically—that is, will the explosion expose enough corruption and rot in the country that politicians and politics will be forced to fundamentally change? If so, how?

While I personally hope that this would be a tipping point, there is not much evidence to currently suggest that it is. Government corruption is and has long been recognized by the Lebanese people. Both when I was living in the country and when returning to conduct my research, it was not uncommon for Lebanese from all sects to refer to political leaders as a ‘mafia’ that takes what it wants. As I previously stated, I think Lebanon needs to see widespread, cross-sectarian, cross-geographic mobilization in order to take down the political establishment. The economic crisis has made people desperate for whatever assistance they can get, regardless of the source. For many, tapping into known, established clientelistic networks feels like the safest option right now. 

6.  Our readers may want to provide assistance to Lebanon during this difficult time. I have seen interviews with WFP Lebanon and USAID, but would you recommend any organizations that have been particularly effective in distributing aid? 

The biggest concern right now is sending aid directly to Lebanese NGOs and associations, and keeping it out of the hands of the government. The two hospitals—Geitaoui hospital and the St. George Hospital—that were most affected by the explosion have set up online donations. The Lebanese Red Cross is an excellent organization that works tirelessly throughout Lebanon. There is also the Lebanese Food Bank, and World Central Kitchen has fundraising specifically for their chefs in Beirut. Finally, Egna Legna Besidet is an organization founded by a former domestic worker that is helping secure repatriation for current domestic workers in Lebanon, many of whom are being abandoned by their employers on the street.