It is now on the front pages with a massive explosion of over 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse near Beirut’s port, with over 100 dead and thousands injured and possibly more than 300,000 displaced from their homes. Juan Cole reports that this had been dangerously sitting there since 2013, when it was moved off the Moldavan Rhosus, where it was apparently unsafely loaded after having been on its way to make fertilizer in Mozambique. But thanks to entrenched corruption and dysfunction in the Lebanese government nothing was done with it while the freighter has sat in the harbor. Now it has exploded.
Just to add to the trouble, President Trump claimed that some people at the Pentagon had told him that this was a bomb and that Lebanon was under attack by somebody. Juan Cole reports that many in Beirut took this seriously and think that attacker is Israel, where PM Netanyahu is facing a corruption trial and would love a foreign policy distraction to boost his popularity. The Saudis have encouraged some reporters in Riyadh and Dubai to claim that it was Hezbollah that did it, the Iranian-backed group that is powerful in what is left of the Lebanese government and that was charged by Netanyahu recently of engaging in a border incident, although Hezbollah has denied this latter charge.
However, Beirut-based CNN reporters communicated with people at the Pentagon who apparently all deny that anybody at the Pentagon told Trump that it might have been a bomb or attack. Now SecDef Epper has apparently publicly piled on with this, denying that it was an attack or a bomb, although ammonium nitrate certainly has been used as a bomb, from Sterling Hall in Madison, Wisconsin a half century ago to the Murrah building in Oklahoma City about half as much time as that ago. It is pretty clear now that Trump has baselessly hyped an unfortunate accident into a possible casus belli.
As it is, this highly destructive explosion culminates what has been an accelerating economic collapse triggered by a long-running political gridlock between the many factions involved in Lebanese politics, with these largely defined by their religious affiliations. This collapse has become life threatening, with Juan Cole reporting that as many as half of the children in the nation are facing hunger, with Lebanon not having had a famine since WW I when it was under siege as part of the Ottoman Empire. Massive inflation has reduced purchasing power by a massive 85%. Lebanon is defaulting on its huge foreign debt, with the IMF and France refusing to lend it any money.
The economic pain is especially focused on the large refugee groups in the nation. Lebanon’s over 16 different identifiable ethno-religious groups of citizens number 4.7 million. But there are now 1.5 million refugees on top of that from the Syrian war, and over 400,000 Palestinian refugees that have been there for over 70 years. Given all this it is amazing that this collapse has not hit Lebanon sooner.
Given its long civil war several decades ago, it is easy to forget that once upon a time Beirut was known as “the Paris of the Middle East.” Those days are long gone, and just to add insult to injury, the tourism industry has also now collapsed, with a bad coronavirus situation simply putting the nail in the coffin on that. Maybe this awful explosion will bring about responsible conduct by the entrenched and corrupt leaders (who have also faced long-running street protests), but the recent past does not provide much hope.