“My first summer job was at the port of Beirut. It was the late ’90s and I was just a teenager. I spent muggy months entering shipping data as part of an ambitious new program to move the port from analogue to digital log keeping. It was as unglamorous as you would expect from a bottom-rung job in the bowels of a Middle East bureaucracy. But despite the heat and the monotony, there was optimism.
The port was critical infrastructure in an economy rejuvenating after 15 years of civil war. Digital log keeping was part of the future — and an attempt to introduce much-needed order and transparency to a recovering public sector. This was, after all, the same port that had been rendered unusable during the civil war by sunken vessels and unexploded ordnance, save for one area controlled by a militia.
The Lebanon that emerged from that rubble is gone, gradually choked by a cynical political class. Yesterday, it was finished off. The port of Beirut was blown up in an explosion that killed at least 100 people (and counting), wounded more than 4,000 and destroyed blocks of the city. Lebanon now faces a new type of catastrophe for which decades of war and political instability were poor preparation.
By all appearances the port disaster did not involve the usual suspects — Hezbollah, Israel, jihadist terrorism or the government of neighboring Syria. The truth seems to be both duller and more disturbing: Decades of rot at every level of Lebanon’s institutions destroyed Beirut’s port, much of the city, and far too many lives. It is precisely the banality behind the explosion that captures the particular punishment and humiliation heaped on Lebanon.
So far, Lebanese officials are in agreement about what happened, though it’s likely that more than one “official” account will emerge. After all, this is Lebanon, a country deeply divided by politics, religion and history. But here is what we know as of now, according to reporting by credible Lebanese media: Some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate unloaded from a disabled vessel in 2014 had been stored in a port warehouse. Then yesterday, a welding accident ignited nearby fireworks — which caused the ammonium nitrate to explode.
Ports are prime real estate for political, criminal and militia factions. Multiple security agencies with different levels of competence (and different political allegiances) control various aspects of their operations. And recruitment in the civilian bureaucracy is dictated by political or sectarian quotas. There is a pervasive culture of negligence, petty corruption and blame-shifting endemic to the Lebanese bureaucracy, all overseen by a political class defined by its incompetence and contempt for the public good.
It’s unclear what combination of these elements let a bomb-in-waiting sit in a warehouse for almost six years, moved fireworks next to it and allowed irresponsible work practices to be carried out nearby. But the catastrophe, while exceptionally severe, is the result of business as usual in Lebanon. The country is familiar with explosions, and it is just as familiar with disasters caused by failures of public services: a garbage crisis that dates back to 2015, an environmental catastrophe in 2019 and power outages this year that last up to 20 hours a day.”