According to the latest official data, the explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, August 4, left at least 200 dead and 6,000 injured. The blast damaged or destroyed more than 8,000 buildings, leaving more than 300,000 people without housing. It also reduced the port of Beirut — where 70 percent of imports arrive— to rubble, raising the spectre of a possible food shortage. While rumors are still swirling about the origin of the blast, it is quite clear that the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate dangerously stored in Beirut’s port had something to do with it.
Originally transported by a garbage ship that docked in Beirut in 2013, the ammonium nitrate, which is used to manufacture fertilizers and explosives, was seized by customs and had been stored at the port ever since, despite its dangerous nature.
While the use of this product without regard to the risks involved is in itself criminal, its storage in the port for so long without any “security measures,” as Prime Minister Hassan Diab admitted, has provoked the anger of the masses. This is why the President of the Lebanese Republic, Michel Aoun, in an attempt to deflect blame from the government, suggested at first that it might have been “a missile or a bomb.”
“If President Aoun Says That, It’s Surely a Lie”
These words, spoken by a young protester, reflect the magnitude of the political crisis that Lebanon is currently undergoing. On Saturday, thousands took to the streets to hold the Lebanese government accountable for the explosion, breaking into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Energy, as well as the Association of Banks, a symbol of the corruption and plundering of the country. The Middle East Eye reported that 63 protesters had been sent to the hospital and that at least 117 were in jail. Under the pressure of these massive demonstrations, four ministers resigned over the weekend, as well as a dozen parliamentarians, before the prime minister finally announced the resignation of the government on Monday with the proposal of early elections in two months.
This proposal is an attempt by the regime to save itself in the face of demonstrations that have revealed the widespread mistrust of a government which many believe is incapable of acknowledging the true actors responsible for the tragedy. Even though there is widespread disapproval of the Lebanese government, many people are mistakenly convinced that France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, and international institutions should investigate the situation instead of the Lebanese government. In fact, more than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling for the return of the French Mandate of Lebanon, a direct colonial dependency.
However, Macron’s commitment to raise international funds through a international fundraising conference held last Sunday, hides his true intentions rather poorly. By demanding “profound changes” before September 1, when he will return to Beirut, the French president has made international aid conditional on significant “reforms” in the energy sector, customs and public markets, as well as the Lebanese central bank.
Under the pretext of fighting “a system that is a prisoner to organized corruption,” Macron is seeking to further open up the already exploited oil wells off Lebanon, as well as the electricity sector, which is still state-owned and was never able to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed during the civil war, to French investment. This is the objective of imperialism. The fight against so-called corruption and negligence has become, in the hands of Macron and other world powers, a “Trojan horse” of imperialism and yet another way to impose neoliberal reforms on the popular classes and plunder the country’s resources.
Religious Divisions No Longer Serve to Save the Regime
While there have been many protests in response to the explosion, the Lebanese masses have been rising up against the regime since October. The trigger for that initial wave of protests was the government bill that taxed WhatsApp and similar instant messaging applications, which are used for calls abroad. This tax had enormous repercussions considering the number of Lebanese living abroad comfortably exceeds the country’s entire population. With the slogan “Everyone means everyone,” the protesters expressed their rejection of the entire corrupt political class, regardless of their religious affiliation. Before Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned, Lebanese masses had already put pressure on former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign in 2019.
However, the challenge was considerable in a country governed by a faith-based system where positions of power are constitutionally distributed according to religious affiliation: the president of the republic is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament is an equal mix of Christian and Muslim and Druze representatives. The clans in power derive their legitimacy from their religious affiliation and pass the torch from father to son, as if they were royal dynasties. This confessional regime is the product of decades of French colonial rule and the 1989 Taëf agreements to end the civil war that tore the country apart and left at least 150,000 dead between 1975 and 1990.
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Income, drawn from the booming banking and service sectors before and after the civil war, was shared among community leaders. The remaining crumbs (work, housing, and social assistance) were distributed to the popular sectors via client networks in exchange for votes in the elections. This system, in which the charity of the ruling caste created a bond of dependence between them and the working classes, reinforced the hegemony of those already in power. It is this close link between the sectarian organization of the State and the system of clientelistic corruption that provided the social basis of the regime and that now seems to have been broken.
The 2008 financial crisis, the tensions with the Israeli colonialist state — whose last aggression against southern Lebanon was in 2006 — and the civil war in Syria after the 2011 revolt, led to a major economic crisis, hindering the ability to redistribute income, and weakening the political forces of those in power. Even Hezbollah, which had enjoyed some recognition, in connection with its role in resistance against Israeli military aggression in 2006, had proved to be an enemy of the peoples of the region because of its complicity with the criminal regime of Bashar Al-Assad, which massacred its own people.
Macron and Imperialism Plunder the Lebanese People and Are Complicit in the Repression
Faced with this crisis, the ruling class has followed a policy of issuing treasury bills with high interest rates, which has led the country to incur a debt of more than 80 billion dollars, 160 percent of the current GDP. The imperialists were quick to exploit this window of debt to force the government to implement austerity plans, privatize the remnants of the public sector, and destroy the social rights of the people. A primary example of this exploitation was the CEDRE 2018 Conference in Paris, where international donors pledged to pay $11 billion in aid to Lebanon in exchange for liberal budget reforms, which have wound up having disastrous consequences for the masses of people.
And this crisis has only been deepened by the coronavirus pandemic. Given the weakness of the public health system and the consequent mismanagement of the response to the pandemic, the population’s distrust of the government has only grown. In fact, Lebanon is currently experiencing a peak in the epidemic that is evolving at twice the world average, with 6,517 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 78 deaths to date. But this distrust has also been exacerbated by the economic situation. Thanks to the historic global crisis, public debt was at 250 percent of GDP on the eve of the explosion, and the Lebanese pound had lost 80 percent of its value, while half of Lebanese were already living in poverty.
For all these reasons, the 252 million euros raised this Sunday by the international support conference chaired by Emmanuel Macron is a form of blackmail by imperialism to demand even more austerity from the Lebanese people. Despite the French president’s attempts, neither Russia nor Iran participated in the fundraiser. The spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry explained their absence by saying “the explosion should not be used as an excuse for political purposes” and that “if the United States is honest about its offer of assistance to Lebanon, it should lift the sanctions,” referring to the Caesar Act enacted by the United States to sanction the Syrian regime and any person or company that has relations with it. These tensions between the regional powers reveal the crisis of multilateralism and the greed of imperialism.
So it is no accident that Emmanuel Macron reacted so quickly to the risk of losing influence in Lebanon, which is a historic gateway to the Middle East for French imperialism. Moreover, if Macron is conditioning his aid to Lebanon, it is to secure even greater profits later by ensuring that France can benefit from the public contracts for the reconstruction of the port by the big French construction companies. The imperialist countries, therefore, cannot be an alternative for the masses of people; their interference must be confronted .
A Perspective for Overthrowing Lebanon’s Regime
In this context, the resignation of the government and the proposal of Prime Minister Hassan Diab to remain in office until early elections are organized, shows the weakness of a regime that is attempting to save itself. The proposed elections would continue to be governed by the current constitution and would maintain the sectarian divisions on which corruption and social inequalities are based. In contrast, the establishment of a free and sovereign constituent assembly, responsible for realizing the social and democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people could unify the popular masses, the youth and the workers, around a common program. This program must include the abolition of the sectarian system, the “semi-citizen” status to which women are bound to, the “kafala” system that imposes semi-slavery conditions on migrant workers, a refusal to pay the debt owed to imperial countries, the nationalization of the banking system and the country’s resources, and a guaranteed right to education, health, decent work and housing for all.
On the other hand, the demand to obtain details surrounding the explosion in the port of Beirut is legitimate and must be met by establishing a commission of inquiry independent of both the regime and international imperialist institutions.
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Finally, the struggle for the self-determination of the Lebanese people against foreign interference disguised as international aid or debt will require the masses of people to take control of their destiny, building an organization that represents their interests and that allows them to thwart the maneuvers of the regime and imperialism. Although the early elections are an attempt by the regime to hold onto its power, it has not yet been able to stop the ongoing mobilizations in the streets, a fact which reinforces the need to build revolutionary leadership within the movement capable of facing the challenges ahead. With such a leadership, the uprising could serve as an example to the oppressed peoples of the region and the whole world to build a future free of exploitation and oppression.