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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 36, New Delhi, August 22, 2020

Lebanon: Clearing the Rubble | Loubna El Amine

Friday 21 August 2020


by Loubna El Amine *

It was unimaginable that things could get worse in Lebanon. But they did. Weeks into the country’s worst economic crisis, compounded by the pandemic, 2570 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored in Beirut’s port, exploded on Tuesday. Because the blast was preceded by a fire, phone cameras were already trained on the port when the mushroom cloud went up. Most of the video footage lasts only a couple of seconds before the people taking it are knocked to the ground. Blurry upside-down images follow, to the sound of cries, screams, prayers, metal and glass shattering, walls collapsing. One video I have seen was apparently taken by a man who died from the explosion. The blast has so far killed 137 people, injured 5000, and made 300,000 homeless.

I got the news in a WhatsApp message from my parents, who live three miles from the port. The door to their apartment was blown off its hinges. A lot of the glass in their building, as in many much further away, broke.

Four hospitals were destroyed when the country was already in urgent need of medical beds and supplies in the face of mounting Covid-19 infections. The blast destroyed 85 per cent of the country’s grain reserves, when poor families were already unable to afford bread. The electricity company was badly hit, when central Beirut was already down to only 12 hours of electricity a day.

A natural disaster causing all this would have been cruel. But what happened was worse than a natural disaster. We still do not know what caused the ammonium nitrate to catch fire, but we do know that more than 2500 tonnes of it, probably taken from a ship stranded in Beirut on its way to Mozambique, had been stored at the port for six years. An astonished American friend asked me how the country’s leaders could have allowed this. Given their record of corruption and neglect, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could be surprised by it.

The response to the explosion from the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament has been muted. As someone said on Twitter, they daren’t look anyone in the eye. They left the stage open for Emmanuel Macron, who went to Beirut yesterday. He made speeches, met with politicians and civil society activists, and offered aid. The colonial undertones of the visit were not lost on anyone. (More than 50,000 people have signed a petition calling on France to take control of Lebanon.) The French president completely overshadowed the Lebanese government. The state has been absent in other ways, too. One TV commentator complained that the names of the dead were being read on air by doctors, and the relatives of the missing were reduced to appearing on live broadcasts to beg for information about their loved ones. A state of emergency has been declared, but it has mostly been volunteers, from all over the country, who have been clearing the rubble.

I’m constantly taken aback by the way Lebanese officials communicate with the public: a health minister decrying the state of food storage, as if it had nothing to do with him; or a communications minister informing us by text message that the internet was back up, as if he were a friend conveying good news rather than the official responsible for its being down in the first place; or an ambassador making a speech overseas in support of protests calling for the government to be toppled, as if the slogans did not apply to him. Government statements since the explosion have followed this script: the ministers are all as bewildered as everyone else, condemn those (others) responsible, and promise to make the country safer in the future. Sixteen port officials have been arrested. No one has resigned.

One interviewee on TV expressed her extreme outrage at the people who have been ruling the country for the last thirty years. But the problems go back further than that: what came before those thirty years was not peace or prosperity, but a 15-year civil war, largely fought between militias led by the men who are in power today, in which at least 120,000 people died and tens of thousands were displaced. The three decades before that, between independence and the onset of the civil war, saw a series of smaller conflicts.

At school, I was taught nothing of my country’s history: the textbook ended in 1943. We learned instead about such things as the causes of the two world wars, the exploits of one particularly bloodthirsty Ottoman officer, the misery brought on by a plague of locusts in 1915, the evacuation of French troops in 1943. I don’t remember learning about the wars that pitted Maronite peasants against Druze landlords in Mount Lebanon in the 1860s. All I can recall about the 19th century from my school history textbook are the portraits of the various emirs, with their beards and colourful robes.

A new national curriculum was introduced in 1998, but history still ended in 1943. The changes included the replacement of Arabic literature by world literature in (bad) translation, a new philosophy textbook full of the word ‘should’ (there was a whole lesson on the necessity of sublimating desires), and the introduction of civics as a new subject. If history stopped before the civil wars, civics leapt forward to the happy future. We learned about the importance of obeying traffic signs, not littering, and playing an active role in the towns we lived in — all in a country without traffic lights or public parks, and where, even in municipal elections, you vote in the place your grandparents were born, not where you actually live.

It was only as an undergraduate that I read the Lebanese Constitution for the first time. I was almost surprised, as a twenty-year-old, that such a document existed and I could read it for myself. ‘Lebanon is a sovereign, free and independent country,’ it begins. It was first drawn up in 1926, under the French Mandate, amended at independence in 1943, and revised again in 1990, at the end of the civil war. Parliamentary seats are now divided equally between Christians and Muslims (before 1990 the ratio had been 6 to 5) and the powers of the (Maronite Christian) president were reduced in favour of the (Sunni Muslim) prime minister and the (Shia) speaker of parliament. These ‘temporary provisions’ are framed by clauses reiterating the ‘national goal’ of abolishing ‘political confessionalism’. Political confessionalism is a ‘transitional’ measure, whose goal is its own abolition.

People inside and outside Lebanon have repeatedly called for it to be abolished. Many have advocated for a secular state, and a new social contract between ruler and ruled. But I have come to think of the idea of temporariness, the ever present but never fulfilled promise of what might have been and may yet still be, as an enduring characteristic of postcolonial states. In any case, it should not take a new social contract to prevent a government from storing 2570 tonnes of ammonium nitrates close to a residential area. The basic idea of government, which existed for thousands of years before the modern state emerged, is based on a quid pro quo of protection for obedience. Why have a government at all if it not only fails to protect you, but brazenly endangers you? The problem doesn’t ultimately lie with sectarianism, but with what the modern system of states allows and does not allow, how much room for manoeuvre it leaves people, how much scope it gives them to imagine alternative forms of government.

Throughout the pandemic, the aspiration towards global justice has taken a backseat to an older view in which welfare is a matter internal to states. Because everyone is suffering everywhere, there have been few calls for people to be rescued by any state other than their own. It’s telling that the one (partial) exception to this rule is the European Union — the only supranational project currently on offer. But it is also significant that when the mushroom cloud erupted in Lebanon and the world took notice, it was the president of France who appeared from the fog as a potential saviour.

In Nationalist Discourse and the Colonial World (1986), Partha Chatterjee looks for — and fails to find — a postcolonial nationalism distinct from the colonial ideas it had fought against. The postcolonial world is structurally bound by colonial categories, limited in its ability to move beyond them. Before the explosion, the only practical option available to Lebanon was a structural adjustment programme. There is perhaps now a second option on the table, involving one version or another of French tutelage. But there is also potentially a third, revealed by those now cleaning the debris, and vowing to fight for the lives lost. The mass protests of last October may have petered out, but the revolutionary spirit behind them endures. May it succeed against all odds.


Loubna El Amine is Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Northwestern University

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