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Beirut Explosion Unmasked—Decades of Government Failure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joseph Seif
June 10, 2021

On August 4, 2020, Lebanon witnessed a catastrophic explosion that destroyed its capital and main port. A fire started in a warehouse on the Beirut port, which ignited about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been ill-stored since 2013. More than 200 people were killed by the explosion, 7,500 injured and 300,000 people left homeless.

The explosion created a 9.6 km radius of destruction, generated a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, was heard 240 km away and blew the cover off the tip of the iceberg of Lebanon’s mismanagement and government failure. It unmasked everything public servants should not do.

Some 30 years ago the signing of the Ta’if Agreement morphed a 15-year civil war from a physical conflict into a political conflict. The agreement also marked an unprecedented rise of corruption by the government that proceeded to borrow billions from the international community to supposedly rebuild the post-war country through a wide array of structural reforms. Rather than fulfill those promises, those resources were spent and what remains is a bankrupted nation lacking clean water and garbage disposal, and suffering from neglected roads, a polluted environment, a dysfunctional justice system, an eroding health sector and debt obligations above $100 billion the government is failing to honor. All the while, a pandemic continues to sweep across the world, exacerbating Lebanon’s already fragile health sector and economy. Then came the nightmare of the August 4 explosion.

As early as 2015, the ammonium nitrate at the port was deemed dangerous. For six years, port officials have been calling on the court system to order removing these dangerous chemicals. The most recent request—addressed to the president and prime minister—was issued on July 20, two weeks before the explosion. Post-explosion investigations continue to shed light on port officials, the prime minister, the president and government officials who knew all along of ammonium nitrate, its improper storage and the dangers to the public. By willfully neglecting its duties, the government elected to embrace inaction—a historic and systemic feature of the Lebanese government. Incompetency and bureaucratic corruption also played a role, allowing inaction to reach a critical state in an imaginably catastrophic, tragic way.

In the past century, several catastrophic events were triggered by the same dangerous and now familiar mixture of carelessness, absentee government and ammonium nitrate. Even with these tragic lessons firmly before them, Lebanese officials continued to insulate themselves from their duty to govern for the good of the public, choosing not to act in the face of damning, crucial evidence.

To this day, the Lebanese state remains largely absent in the daily lives of its citizens. This provided an avenue for civil society and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to become problem-solvers. NGOs were not naïve about the government’s very limited efficacy as an emergency responder: This awareness and lack of faith in existing institutions is why, in part, the Lebanese Red Cross, Live Love Beirut and Offre Joie were quick to mobilize and offer emergency services, such as clean-up services and home restoration, the day after the explosion. Thankfully, generous international donations and aid also poured in to assist these efforts. Unfortunately, the Lebanese government presence seemed virtually nonexistent for days.

It is clear the Beirut explosion is a result of government negligence and corruption. Public servants acted primarily for their own self-interest, not as good stewards of public will and trust. As such, let this tragic accident serve public administrators as a potent lesson highlighting everything public service should never be and do.

Let us also remain committed to reckoning with not only what the explosion helped expose, but also what challenges remain hidden. What is hidden tends to be poorly understood and, as a result, can be dangerous and devastating. (A few days after the explosion, the Lebanese government promised a swift investigation into the incident. Six months later, as investigations begin to focus on civil servants in the nation’s highest offices, this crucial effort at transparency and reconciliation had stalled).

This vulnerability of progress and genuine reformation should give us pause. It forewarns about the culture of inaction and how swiftly it can sway away from any measure of accountability.

Author: Joseph Seif is a recent graduate from Binghamton University with a Master’s in Public Administration. He was born in Saudi Arabia, but comes from Lebanon, a place that has witnessed constant instability and is currently going through a severe economic crisis. He arrived to the U.S. in 2012 to continue his education in High School and higher Ed. Currently he is volunteering for the Lebanese Information Center in D.C. as a Recruitment Officer. He aspires a career as an administrator, most likely in the NGO and public sector. Joseph tends to be a self-starter and likes to do things in different ways. For example, he started a grassroot organization that addresses environmental issues in a little village in Mount-Lebanon. By doing so, he believes that reconnecting with nature is a first step to rebuilding a society, especially during an economic crisis. 

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