Although badly broken, Lebanon can be put back together

Although badly broken, Lebanon can be put back together

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A demonstrator kicks a tear gas canister fired by riot police during a protest, Beirut, Lebanon, August 8, 2020. (Reuters)

The week following the explosion in Beirut port put on display some of the crippling crises that affected Lebanon long before this catastrophe exposed the government’s ineptitude and indifference to the suffering of its own people. The chain of events since last Tuesday underscores the way the government has handled long-simmering security, political, economic and humanitarian disasters. Led by Hezbollah and its allies, the government has prioritized advancing the political interests of the group and Iran, not those of ordinary Lebanese.

The reaction of the Lebanese people has demonstrated the gulf between the government and its people. It was telling that French President Emmanuel Macron reached the affected Beirut neighborhoods before any Lebanese leaders did. 

On Aug. 3, one day before the explosion, Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned his post, citing the government’s failure to deal with the crises that threatened to make Lebanon a failed state. Other ministers followed suit after the explosion and, on Monday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab himself announced the resignation of his entire government, saying that he had wanted to fight corruption but discovered that “corruption is bigger than the state.”

The donor conference convened by France on Sunday confirmed Lebanon’s isolation globally and lack of trust by the international community. While showing great sympathy for victims of the explosion, donors expressed frustration with the country’s lack of progress on fighting corruption or adopting the economic reforms proposed by international financial institutions. 

Conference participants pledged small amounts, totaling about $300 million — a drop in the bucket compared to previous donor conferences that mobilized billions of dollars for Lebanon. Those pledging aid insisted that it be delivered directly to the affected population, through international aid groups, not the Lebanese government. They also conditioned future aid to implementing economic and governance reforms. Many demanded an independent investigation of the disaster and the participation of international investigators. Lebanese government representatives ignored those appeals, rejecting the idea of an international investigation.

Protests against the government’s performance, which started last year, have intensified since the explosion. It is sad that some Lebanese have given up on the possibility of reform and started the process of leaving the country altogether. Many expressed fears of a return to the disastrous civil war.

But while it is clear that Lebanon has been badly broken as a result of numerous factors and missteps, it is not impossible to put it back together. Lebanon has shown its resilience before and was able to rise from the ashes many times. I still remember when I visited Lebanon in 1990, shortly after the Taif Accord was concluded in October 1989. Many had given up on Lebanon after 14 years of civil war, but the agreement gave it a new lease of life. However, when Rene Moawad, the first president chosen under the terms of the agreement, was assassinated after just a few weeks in office, despair returned for a brief while. But the Lebanese persevered and elected another president and the engine of rebuilding was started.

There have been many disastrous missteps since then, leading to the current state of affairs, where the humanitarian situation appears hopeless, the economy is in a shambles, and the political system is in gridlock.

Unpacking this mess, let alone solving it, will not be easy. Lessons from Lebanon’s history indicate some ways out, as difficult and uncertain as they may be. 

First, humanitarian assistance needs to continue and intensify, regardless of what we think of Lebanon’s current leadership. Gulf Cooperation Council countries were among the first to provide aid despite their misgivings about the government. Assistance should go directly to those affected, with the help of independent aid organizations. Many are watching how the government handles the recovery and rebuilding of the affected areas as a barometer of its seriousness in addressing this crisis.

Second, there is an urgent need for an independent international investigation into the causes of the explosion. Tasking those responsible for the disaster with the investigation or assigning the task to a politicized body is not going to offer confidence in its results. A transparent and independent probe will help restore some credibility for the government.

Lebanon has shown its resilience before and was able to rise from the ashes many times.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Third, Lebanon needs to engage seriously with the International Monetary Fund to reform its economy, stabilize its currency and restore its creditworthiness, following the disastrous default in May. Without restoring economic activity, more Lebanese households will join those 50 percent that are now estimated to fall below the poverty line.

Fourth, Lebanon needs to address its rampant corruption. It could get help from the World Bank and the UN bodies that have developed effective methods to improve governance. 

Fifth, the political impasse needs to be ended by organizing early elections, as Lebanon cannot afford more months of paralysis as political factions haggle over a new Cabinet. There were complaints that the last election was marred by sectarian gerrymandering as a result of a faulty election law. Political sectarianism was supposed to have been ended a long time ago, according to the Taif Accord. The current popular protests have called for a new merit-based political system to end the sectarian division of government jobs and other state bounties between chieftains of various sects and ethnic groups.

Sixth is judicial reform. Lebanon has had more than its share of political assassinations, including the murders of presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders, journalists, and academics. It has also witnessed politically motivated mass shootings and large-scale detentions. In most of these cases, the Lebanese courts have failed to act. That failure is one reason for the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague. A first step should be to cooperate with that court when it announces its judgment on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which is now scheduled for Aug. 18. Failure to cooperate would send the wrong message to the international community and could affect its cooperation on other tracks.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

A week on from catastrophe, Lebanon remembers Beirut victims

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The wife of Rami Kaaki, one of ten firefighters who were killed during the last week's explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, tries to reach her husband's coffin during his funeral, at the firefighter headquarters in Beirut on Tuesday. (AP)
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Updated 11 August 2020

A week on from catastrophe, Lebanon remembers Beirut victims

  • Memorials held for dead but Lebanese still seethe at political class
  • Despite government collapse protesters demand more

BEIRUT: The people of Lebanon observed a minute of silence on Tuesday to mourn the victims of the massive explosion that destroyed Beirut’s port area a week ago. It began at at 6:08 p.m., the time that the city was rocked by the main blast on Aug. 4.

Volunteers, activists, residents of the damaged areas and families of the victims also marched to the port of Beirut in a show of sorrow and anger over the tragedy, which killed dozens of people and left thousands injured.

As work continues to clear rubble from damaged and destroyed buildings — especially at the Port of Beirut, where 40 people are still unaccounted for — the official death toll has risen to 171 after more bodies were recovered. They included Lebanese Army personnel, Civil Defense employees, firefighters and silo workers.

The blast happened when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the port since 2014 ignited and exploded last week. It has been reported that welders had been carrying out work on the warehouse shortly before the explosion.

Maj. Gen. Mohammad Khair, secretary-general of the High Relief Commission in Lebanon, said it is estimated the more than 70,000 houses were destroyed or damaged by the explosion.

Relief work and assistance continues in the affected areas. Dozens of non-governmental organizations are operating from Martyr’s Square, in the heart of Beirut. They are distributing food and water to people left homeless by the disaster, and hundreds of volunteers who have come to the city from across the country, carrying shovels and brooms, to help with the clean-up operation. Field hospitals have been set up to care for those who are injured while clearing broken glass, rubble and debris from houses and shops.

Firefighters carry the coffin of their comrade Rami Kaaki, one of ten firefighters who were killed during the last week's explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, during his funeral, at the firefighter headquarters in Beirut on Tuesday. (AP)

“We have been here since the second day after the explosion, assisting people whose homes were destroyed, furniture and kitchen appliances were damaged and clothes were torn away, just like their memories,” said Rami, a volunteer who is a member of a scout association. “And we still have a long way to go.”

Mahmoud Senno, another volunteer, said: “I came all the way from Barja to help clear the wounds of Beirut. Residents keep saying that even though not one official has come to check up on them, the presence of the young volunteers has made them feel warm and supported during this tragedy.”

While no members of the government or parliamentary officials have dared to visit the disaster areas so far, John Barsa, the acting administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) visited Lebanon for the first time to inspect the port and other areas devastated by the explosion. USAID has set up a camp near the port to assess the needs of the population, and Barsa briefly helped clear debris and broken glass. Accompanied by US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, he also met the owners of damaged houses and shops.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now, with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister.
A week after the blast, residents of Beirut were picking up the pieces as search operations continued for 30 to 40 people still missing.
“Our house is destroyed and we are alone,” said Khalil Haddad. “We are trying to fix it the best we can at the moment. Let’s see, hopefully there will be aid and, the most important thing: hopefully the truth will be revealed.”

“We will not forget until nooses are erected (for the leaders),” one man said at Tuesday’s demonstration after he read out some of the victims’ names shown on the screen.
Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, which was the biggest in Beirut’s history and compounded a deep financial crisis that has ravaged the currency, paralyzed the banking system and sent prices soaring.
“I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” Diab said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms.

A vigil held on Tuesday for the victims lost in a massive explosion, in Beirut. (Reuters)

“The American people stands by the Lebanese people, and the US administration has pledged to send $17 million in disaster aid to Lebanon,” said Barsa. He assured the people that he “will not meet any Lebanese official and US aid will go directly to the people, through local partners.”

In other developments, efforts to restore the port have begun with the appointment of Bassem Al-Qaisi as its new director-general, the day after the arrest of his predecessor, Hassan Koraytem.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has announced that the World Food Program will send 50,000 tons of wheat to Beirut to replace stocks stored in silos at the port that were destroyed in the explosion.

People watch on a giant screen the moment of the massive explosion, as they gather in honor of the victims at the scene on Tuesday. (AP)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization office in Beirut warned that the blast caused “partial or overall destruction of more than 70 public and 50 private schools in Beirut and its suburbs, which might disrupt the new school year and deprive more than 55,000 Lebanese and non-Lebanese students enrolled in these schools of their right to education.”

The ruling administration of Prime Minister Hassan Diab has become a caretaker government after he announced its resignation on Monday. On Tuesday, calls and political initiatives intensified to agree a consensus about the formation of a new, effective government capable of addressing all the challenges and crises facing Lebanon.

A source at the presidential palace said: “President Michel Aoun is calling for the formation of a government as soon as possible, and side consultations are ongoing to set a date for parliamentary consultations aimed at appointing a new prime minister.”

Demonstrators wave Lebanese flags during protests near the site of a blast at Beirut's port area, Lebanon on Tuesday. (Reuters)

Among the many Arab and foreign officials who have visited Lebanon to offer support in the aftermath of the explosion, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Al-Safadi arrived in Beirut on Tuesday. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is expected to arrive in the city on Wednesday for the funeral of a worker at the German Embassy who died in the blast.

After the resignation of Diab’s government on Monday, the French Foreign Ministry said “the priority is the formation of a new government” and that “without reforms, Lebanon will be heading toward collapse.”

During a Security Council session on Lebanon on Monday night, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the country would not be left to face its challenges alone but also stressed the need to achieve economic reforms.

No Middle East peace without solving ‘Palestinian problem,’ says Russia

Updated 18 September 2020

No Middle East peace without solving ‘Palestinian problem,’ says Russia

  • Kremlin observes ‘progress’ in the normalization of ties in the region

MOSCOW: Russia said it would be a “mistake” to think of peace in the Middle East without resolving the Palestinian issue.

The Foreign Ministry statement came on Thursday after Israel normalized relations with long-time foes Bahrain and the UAE at the White House on Tuesday.

Russia said it noted “progress” in the normalization of ties between Israel and several Arab countries but said that “the Palestinian problem remains acute.” 

“It would be a mistake to think that without finding a solution to it that it will be possible to secure lasting stabilization in the Middle East.” 

Moscow urged regional and global players to “ramp up coordinated efforts” to solve the issue. 

“Russia is ready for such joint work,” including in the framework of the diplomatic Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators and in close coordination with the Arab League, the Foreign Ministry said. 

US President Donald Trump has said similar US-brokered deals are close between the Jewish state and several other nations. 

Bahrain and the UAE are the first Arab nations to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. 

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday that only an Israeli withdrawal from its occupied territories could bring peace to the Middle East.