Will Massive Destruction in Beirut Be a Catalyst for Political Change in Lebanon?

The massive explosion and devastation triggered by thousands of tons of chemicals improperly stored in Beirut’s port is the culmination of decades of corruption that has driven one of the Middle East's most spirited countries to ruin.

The staggering destruction, with losses in the billions of dollars, will compound Lebanon’s multiple humanitarian catastrophes. Its people are seething with rage as they are pushed into even more poverty and despair by an accident that appears to have been completely avoidable.

But it remains to be seen whether it will serve as the long-awaited catalyst to dislodge an entrenched political class responsible for years of graft and mismanagement. Even if it does end up being the spark for change, it will likely take years of instability and unrest, spurred by dismal economic conditions, to get there.

A view of the damaged grain silo following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon, on August 7, 2020. AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

Lebanon’s rulers, many of them warlords and militia holdovers from the days of the 1975-90 civil war, have proven to be extremely resilient. They hang on to their seats from one election to the next, largely because of the country’s sectarian power-sharing system and an antiquated electoral law that allows them to behave with virtual impunity while guaranteeing their political survival.

The Lebanese people rose up many times before, including 15 years ago when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a truck bombing; in 2015's “You Stink” protest movement during the garbage-collection crisis; and most recently in October, at the onset of the economic crisis. Each time, they eventually became disillusioned and beset by divisions as political parties hijacked and co-opted their protests.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, said the interests of Lebanon's politicians were far too deeply entrenched in the system.

Army soldiers are deployed during a protest near parliament, following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon, on August 7, 2020. MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

“Even though historically speaking, such national catastrophes or ruptures serve as a catalyst for transformative change, I am deeply skeptical about the governing and ruling elite in Lebanon instituting change on their own. This is delusional,” he said.