Firefighters spray water on a fire after an explosion was heard in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4, 2020.
Mohamed Azakir | Reuters
Beirut’s residents are in shock and grief after a massive explosion in the city’s port pierced the Lebanese capital, injuring more than 4,000 people and killing at least 1
The explosion, which blew out windows and destroyed property for miles, was initially attributed to a delivery of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which was stored in an unsecured warehouse in the Beirut cargo port.
The government then announced an investigation to determine the exact cause of the explosion and “who was responsible” within five days.
“I will not rest until we find the person responsible for what happened to hold him accountable and impose the most severe punishments,” said Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab at Wednesday morning’s early house and added that it was unacceptable that such a volume of the explosive chemical had been present in a warehouse without “preventive measures” for six years. It was not immediately clear what sparked the delivery of ammonium nitrate.
The chemical is commonly used as a fertilizer, but is also part of the explosives breakdown if it is combined with heating oil and detonated by an explosive charge. However, ammonium nitrate can also burn if exposed to an intense fire that appeared to be burning in part of the port before the explosion.
“It is apocalyptic”
Local media and videos uploaded to social media after the explosion showed bloody people walking through streets littered with rubble. Medical staff had to treat patients in parking lots because hospitals exceeded capacity. And countless other victims are missing – by Wednesday morning, an Instagram page called “LocateVictimsBeirut”, on which residents post photos of their missing friends and family, had amassed 63,500 followers.
“I was in the car when we felt the big explosion and the airbags opened,” a Beirut resident told CNBC. “I ran away – it is apocalyptic. There is no other word to describe it. We go on glass, the whole area of Achrafieh,” he said, describing one of the oldest residential areas in Beirut.
“Everyone I saw was bleeding from her head and arms everywhere. People screaming desperately … I’m still in shock.”
Yumna Fawaz, a local journalist, described the population as “shocked”. “We lost our people and our city. My entire apartment is destroyed,” she said. Another witness described “chaos” and said that many friends were injured and some were still looking for family members.
The crisis will “accelerate the government’s collapse”
The immediate crisis in terms of homelessness, health, overwhelmed medical care and destroyed real estate and businesses in addition to an already crippled economy will only accelerate the government’s collapse, Eurasia Group analysts wrote in a statement on Wednesday morning.
“The government’s credibility is diminishing, and large sections of the public no longer believe the government is able to deal with it,” wrote the consulting firm. “In our view, this is accelerating the move towards the collapse of the current government. The economic crisis will also worsen as the port is the main trading valve and the basis for many stored goods waiting to be released.”
Any recovery in Lebanon will now be “massively difficult,” said Rodger Shanahan, a Middle East research fellow at the Australian Lowy Institute.
“This is the last thing a country like Lebanon currently needs,” Shanahan told CNBC’s “Capital Connection” on Wednesday. “Any country would find this difficult, but Lebanon was in the midst of probably the worst financial crisis it has ever seen … and here is another example of loose governance – it continues to reaffirm the views of average Lebanese citizens who to represent them I have no government that can govern properly. ”
Disaster in the midst of an already historical crisis
The disaster struck a nation that had already been hit by the crisis and was afflicted with domestic and regional political tensions. Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, with skyrocketing inflation and unemployment, and a free-fall currency. People’s savings in local currency, the pound, have wiped out their value. The World Bank warned in November that half of the country’s 6.8 million inhabitants could fall below the poverty line.
And all that was before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic – now locals are struggling to buy food and staple food, and angry protesters are decoding government inaction and corruption to force them to choose between viral infection or starvation. The country has also defaulted on its sovereign debt, and Lebanon’s debt to GDP of over 150% is the third highest in the world. A lack of dollars in the country has resulted in banks restricting withdrawals and people having no access to their money. Discussions with the International Monetary Fund over an emergency bailout package ended last month.
The small Mediterranean country is also home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Endemic government corruption, crumbling infrastructure, regular power outages, a pollution crisis, and the government’s failure to provide many basic services led to nationwide protests that began in October and continued in various iterations.
The Lebanese foreign minister resigned on Monday, criticizing the lack of action and the government’s willingness to solve the country’s financial problems that could make it a “failed state”. And the port explosion came when tensions eased ahead of a UN tribunal ruling on Friday for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a truck bombing in 2005.
The four suspects of the trial are all members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary and political group widely recognized as the most powerful political party in Lebanon. The suspects deny any role in Hariri’s death. Hezbollah is described by the US government as a terrorist organization.