A worker collects shattered glass in Beirut Photo: PA/Xinhua News Agency

After the blast: how Beirut’s clean-up operation is exposing Lebanon’s wider state dysfunction

Instead of clearing up the Lebanese state is cracking down
August 19, 2020

In the gathering darkness, three men are bending to the pavement on Pasteur Street in east Beirut, sorting rubber tubing from shattered glass from splintered wood. These are what remains of once-cherished belongings after an enormous explosion tore through the Lebanese capital’s seaport on 4th August. “I feel dead inside,” said one of the men, shaking his arms and glove-clad hands, as if trying to force energy back into his body. “It will take 15 years to repair this area, I reckon. But the effort of me doing this kind of work is nothing compared with the pain of those who’ve lost someone.”

The men said they were handing the blast debris over to a civil society organisation that is recycling the ruins spewed from homes during the blast, which was caused by nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored nearby. The explosion, which registered at a magnitude of 3.3 on the Richter scale, killed at least 178 people, and left 6,000 more injured, according to UN figures.

The central government and Beirut Municipality have been widely criticised for failing to properly lead the disaster response, leaving significant clear-up efforts in the hands of contractor companies and volunteers brandishing brooms and dustpans. Amid public anger, Lebanon’s cabinet resigned last week, landing the country with a caretaker leadership and an extended state of emergency. That gives the army wide-ranging powers to enter homes, make arrests, and curb freedom of assembly and the media.

Officials admit they were not prepared for the disaster. “It was state of emergency. It was chaos,” said a Beirut Municipality official. “We don’t have a proper crisis management team or unit, neither within the Municipality of Beirut, nor within the state of Lebanon.” The official claimed that Lebanon instead relied on, “more of a culture of resilience upon the citizens, rather than on institutions.” Emergency planning would need, “manpower, financial investment and kind of a vision,” he said.

Debris and rubble from the blast is being handled over multiple dumping sites, according to waste management workers and civil society activists. The web of teams at work is complex. The dumps are located in and around Beirut, and experts believe at least one of them contains asbestos. Last week, tons of unsorted rubbish appeared in a large courtyard in the densely-populated Mar Mikhael district, one of the areas worst affected by the explosion. This dumping site was only temporary, according to the Beirut Municipality official, and diggers bearing insignia from that authority, as well as surrounding municipalities, were busy moving the waste piles. Four days later, the accumulations had reduced in size.

Jumbles of unsorted debris—broken glass, twisted metal and plastics—are also piled several metres deep in the badly-damaged Beirut seafront area. A staff member at the private contractor handling this blast waste, JCC-Soriko said the company was placing the rubbish in two sites—here and Qarantina, an industrial-residential area—but that they were not responsible for its ultimate disposal.

“This question cannot be answered from our side, because our mission ends when we send the material to this deposit area,” said the JCC-Soriko source, when asked where debris from the explosion would end up. One municipality official said that debris might go to landfill at Saida, a coastal city south of Beirut, or to the Costa Brava dump, near Lebanon’s international airport. Another senior official said, “Please, I beg you, don’t ask me questions that I don’t have the answer to.”

This protracted and imperfect process is not new in Lebanon, but a sign of wider state dysfunction. In 2015, mass protests broke out when putrid rubbish collected in the streets, following the closure of Beirut’s main landfill and lawmakers failing to find a viable alternative. The protest movement took on the moniker “You Stink”—indicating how many Lebanese felt—and still feel—about their leaders. The governmental ineptitude and corruption that led to the rubbish crisis has not gone away, according to protestors and human rights observers.

Since then, Lebanon has had three different cabinets, but citizens widely feel that the underlying patronage networks, incompetence and apathy among leaders have not changed. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, nepotism and crony capitalism have been perpetuated by the confessional political system that maintains the balance of power between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christians—but which many Lebanese feel does not represent their interests, and which allows long-standing politicians to retain power by doling out services in exchange for voter loyalty.

The most recent Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, positioned himself as a reformist, leading a cabinet of figures presented as technocrats, who would oppose corruption and political partisanship. But in his seven-month tenure, the country’s economy nosedived: the currency has lost 80 per cent of its value against the US dollar, pushing up prices even as hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Talks over an International Monetary Fund bailout have stalled.

Since the government’s resignation, Lebanese people have renewed calls for a complete overhaul of the political system, and rule by neutral, non-party affiliated leaders. Protestors are demanding that all MPs step down, and an entirely new—as yet unspecified—political system replaces the confessional regime. But those in power will not give up without a fight. They include the powerful Iran-backed group Hezbollah: along with allies in some of Lebanon’s Christian parties, it controls the country’s parliament.

“Hezbollah has made their position on the formation of the next government clear. They want a ‘national unity government’ because they always want to play the ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ game and I think they'll try hard to get their way as usual,” said David Daoud, a Washington DC-based research analyst. “Their goal now is to use all means to firstly keep their base, and secondly, to redirect popular anger away from them. If they start killing people or blowing things up, everyone will know it’s them, and they unite the street even more against them.”

Despite the government’s implosion, and an absence of officials in the clean-up efforts, other arms of the state have made their presence felt since the explosion. Protestors gathering in central Beirut in recent days have been put down by security services with rubber bullets, birdshot pellets, and thick clouds of tear gas—what human rights observers called “excessive levels of violence.”

“This [response] says a lot about the misguided priorities of the Lebanese state,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It adds to the distrust between the population and the ruling elite, which has never seemed more disconnected from and unrepresentative of the people as it does today.”