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August 09, 2020
Beirut Blasts: In Need to Rebuild the State

By the LCPS research team
 
The explosion that took place on August 4, 2020 in the port of Beirut was not an accident. It is the recent manifestation of major governance failures in the political system that runs deep into most, if not all, state institutions and administrations. It is the same system that either caused or failed to address the garbage crisis, the toxic fumes from power plants, the wildfires, and more recently the financial crisis, among others. The governance system crafted and shaped by the governing political parties over 30 years has not only failed to recruit and empower government officials to provide public services and protect citizens, but it has been deployed to serve the narrow interests of political leaders, their cronies, and clients. The byproduct of the system is to perpetually distribute state positions and agencies to various political parties and undermine any accountability mechanisms. Hence, the political establishment that has ruled over these years is responsible for the explosion.  
 
Putting aside the trigger—be it an explosion or an attack—the mere storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate next to a major urban area for a period of seven years is a testament to a colossal failure in administrative and political governance.  
 
The response of the state in managing the crisis has been dismal. It failed to protect the crime scene from tampering, was very slow in its search for victims, and did not put responsible key officials immediately under house arrest. Given the nature of the political system and its failure generally in holding culprits accountable, there is no trust or credibility in the actions that were taken so far. While people are calling for an international investigation, Lebanon must set up an independent national committee with credible and competent people endowed with the necessary resources who could bring international experts to support their work. 
 
In addition, there has been no attempt by the government to communicate openly and transparently with the people on the extent of the damage, the status of the search for victims, and who to call for support. People, once again, were left to rush out their victims to hospitals, beg for information on the missing ones, dust off their furniture from the debris in the dark, and leave their homes unprotected at night. There is no leadership and no state agencies deployed to properly take care of citizens. Lebanese find themselves supported by an army of volunteers, NGOs, activists, and syndicates trying to fill the huge gap that the state has left. 
 
The state, which has been hollowed out over the years by its political leaders, has resorted to its old tools to respond to the crisis: It brought in politically connected firms to clean the mess and assess the damages. After such a disaster, we realize once again that our state has no proper procedures (or if proper, they are not implemented), tools, equipment, or training to deal with such a calamity. There is no excuse for this. Lebanon has the human resources and capital to do so but the governing elites chose not to employ the right people, buy the equipment, or even utilize the ones that were given as donation. To claim that we do not have the resources is also a lie: The political leaders chose not to collect taxes, did not stop tax evasion, exempted certain sectors from paying taxes, or did not tax the right segments of society to generate enough revenues to build a capable state. 
 
In response to the disaster, the prime minister, like his predecessors, rushed to seek foreign aid. Lebanon needs urgent money to rebuild its infrastructure. However, Lebanese governments have failed since 2003 to access promised funds as they refused to undertake reforms. More recently, the government failed to abide by the CEDRE reform program to unlock $11 billion pledged by international donors, to rebuild its infrastructure. So how can we trust the same authorities to handle aid money to rebuild half of the city? This is why international aid, relief, and reconstruction efforts must be channeled through independent, non-sectarian, or international organizations, to effectively reach the population in need. Any incoming funds cannot be channeled through state institutions in order to avoid their abuse and implicitly release pressure for reform.
 
The Beirut port has been the capital’s lifeline since at least 1948. We urgently need to rebuild it through proper and transparent procurement processes where no politically connected firms are involved, but we also need to make sure that it remains under state control lest any privatization effort or Public Private Partnership under the weak governance system—which includes a weak regulatory system and judiciary—will result in further corruption. 
 
While Lebanon’s residents are in need of aid and support to rebuild their houses and community, the ones with financial means are unable to tap on their life savings from the banks that have mismanaged their deposits under the supervision of the central bank. Instead of giving them access to their money, the recent central bank circular compels them to borrow money. Prior to the explosion, the parliamentary committee worked so hard to save the banking sector from sharing the cost of the financial implosion at the expense of state assets and average citizens. 
 
In light of the explosion which has broken all trust with the government, the state, and political leaders, and ended hope, some people out of desperation are calling directly or indirectly for foreign intervention. It is important to remember that not only our defunct political system was institutionalized under it but building an effective, fair, and accountable state must be a homegrown national project. We need to rebuild our institutions and social contract that place the welfare of citizens at the center. No country or foreign agency can do it or should do it for us.  
 
August 4 must be a game changer. The rotten political system not only failed to provide for its citizens but its negligence and corruption has killed our loved ones, made others homeless, and destroyed property and businesses. Worse yet, the explosion also shattered the dreams and hopes of many people. 
 
Political leaders who have neither assumed responsibility nor acknowledged the roots of the calamity are claiming that they either did not know, or shifted responsibility onto others. They will soon resort to sectarian discourse to claim that they are protectors of their community members. Well, this is a lie. It is precisely this mindset and the subsequent actions that have emerged from it brought us to the brink of collapse. 
 
To rebuild the state, we need to have a transitional government not only composed of competent people but with a vision of how to deal with the overlapping political, economic and social crises. It must have legislative authority lest it becomes hostage to the failed political parties in parliament. While this is necessary, it is not sufficient. People must continue organizing and rebuilding their syndicates and unions as they are key pillars for any democratic society. More fundamentally, people need to overcome their fear of the political class, the zaims, and their thugs who have treated them as clients and not as citizens with rights. More people must have the courage to stand up to the corrupt elite who are not only the obstacles to the building of the state but they are the source of our misery and impoverishment. There is no other way.
 
 






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