The catastrophe shows that politics in Lebanon has failed completely. The government had previously gambled away confidence in the state.
The scene when French President Emmanuel Macron made his short visit to Beirut through the crowds of the heavily damaged Gemayze district adjacent to the port was remarkable in many ways.
It wasn’t just his security guards’ nightmare that their boss got up close and personal with the people in the middle of the Lebanese capital. It was also the nightmare of his host, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who was accompanying him. Because the residents of the quarter remembered the old slogans of the Arabellions 2011 and shouted: “The people want the overthrow of the system”.
The visit also highlighted the failure of Lebanese politics after the explosion. It was the Frenchman who spoke to the people on the street in Beirut. “I see the emotions on your faces, your sadness and your pain. That’s why I came,” he explained, shaking hands – on a street where some of the rubble was still lying around and the shops had no new windows.
Up until that point, none of the Lebanese politicians had appeared on the street. They have good reasons for this. It is the corrupt and incompetent system they created that the Lebanese blame for the explosion disaster.
With a swipe at his host, Macron said that the Lebanese boat would sink unless there were serious political and economic reforms. “What we need here is political change. The explosion should be the beginning of a new era,” he said.
In the Lebanese state vacuum, Marcon tried to score as a savior. Not everyone received the French in a friendly manner. But almost everyone booed Aoun, the president of their own country. He had nothing to offer and his authorities are being held responsible for the negligent storage of the chemicals that led to the disaster.
The former colonial power and Macron had few aid deliveries and a few nice words to offer. The fact that the foreign head of state tried to shine, while his own could only grind his teeth, shows how great the mistrust of many Lebanese against his own institutions is.
The fact that nobody in Lebanon trusts the state any longer goes back to years of experience of the people, that the political elite and high officials have simply managed to get into their own pockets. They robbed the country even before the corona crisis and brought it to its knees economically.
People don’t trust the state at any level. You don’t trust him to really investigate the cause of the explosion. A few days after the explosion, calls for an independent foreign commission of inquiry were loud. This, too, is the result of years of cover-ups and cover-ups of government errors. Every Lebanese knows that government agencies in Lebanon are seldom held accountable.
This goes so far that the Lebanese are demanding that international aid that is now being made available should not be distributed through Lebanese government agencies. They fear that they will be stolen from here again. And right now, given the insane extent of the catastrophe, they need a functioning state more than ever.
That is exactly their dilemma. They know the problems they suffer from cannot be solved by the same corrupt elite and denominational system of enriching family clans that created these problems.
Neighborhood committees and civil society organizations that are currently helping with tidying up and supplies cannot replace a state in the mega-task of getting Beirut back on its feet. But that turns out to be a total failure once more. There is no central crisis management. There are not even central missing persons lists. It is the total failure of the state that the Lebanese have known for a long time, and that is disastrous in such a catastrophe.
In the days after the explosion, people were left to fend for themselves and it was heartbreaking to hear their stories moving from hospital to hospital to find loved ones or waiting at the entrance to the locked harbor. Always with the hope of being let through in order to search for the missing even under the rubble.
And even if you have to rely on yourself, obstacles are put in your way. The homes of up to 300,000 people were destroyed and damaged. So far, there is no government aid. People have to fall back on their private assets – at least to fix the bare minimum first.
The problem with this: Most Lebanese have dollar accounts. From there they are only allowed to withdraw a limited amount and only get the Lebanese lira at an absolutely bad exchange rate. The bank rate against the dollar is 3500 Lebanese lira, the value on the black market is far more than twice as high. However, the craftsmen and the materials for the repairs have to pay them at the market price.