On 4 August 2020, explosions in a Beirut warehouse storing ammonium nitrate resulted in over 200 deaths, 7,500 injuries and left an estimated 300,000 Lebanese homeless.
The resulting battle over an inquiry into its causes appeared symptomatic of a country already deep in an economic and political crisis.
In the year since, Lebanon’s situation has only worsened. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Government resigned and the Prime Minister designate, Saad Hariri, struggled to form a replacement before resigning in July 2021. In June, the World Bank warned that Lebanon was experiencing one of the world’s worst economic crises since 1850.
The appointment of a new Prime Minister designate, Najib Mikati, and the organisation of an aid conference for the country, to be held on the explosion’s anniversary, could offer a narrow pathway towards stability.
This Insight describes the fallout from the explosion, ongoing political and economic pressures, and support from the international community.
The blast and demand for a full inquiry
The explosion in the port city of Beirut was estimated to be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.
Many Lebanese protested against a Government whose negligence and corruption they argued resulted in the explosion. Lebanese officials, including the President and then Prime Minister, had been warned in July 2020 that the warehouse posed a danger to the capital.
Protests have continued, with many relatives demanding officials be questioned in a judge-led investigation. Local NGOs fear any Lebanese investigation will lack credibility, due to weak judicial independence. The Government has opposed demands for an international investigation, which Human Rights Watch has called for.
High-level officials have claimed immunity from questioning, despite requests from judges. Amnesty International has urged the Lebanese Government to reconsider its opposition. A proposal in June by some Lebanese MPs to try ex-ministers in a joint legislative-judicial council was seen by activists as a further attempt to hinder investigations.
Lebanon’s debt mountain and growing poverty
The explosion in Beirut exacerbated existing economic and political problems. From 2019, Lebanon has experienced a financial collapse due to rising government debts and declining remittances from abroad as a result of wider regional instability.
In 2020, real GDP growth collapsed 20 percent and inflation was 84 percent. Around 89 percent of the 890,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon lived under the extreme poverty line, according to the UN Refugee Agency, the World Food Programme and UNICEF (being defined as 308,700 Lebanese Pounds per month, or half the Lebanese minimum wage). Syrian refugees constitute around 13 percent of Lebanon’s population. There are also energy shortages and the public water system faces potential collapse.
Protesting for reform
Protests have been growing in Lebanon since 2019, motivated by concerns over corruption and successive governments being unable to lead an economic recovery. The pandemic and resulting public health restrictions have also worsened Lebanon’s economy. While the energy crisis has deteriorated, the country’s energy sector has long been unprofitable and new investment has stalled for decades due to political paralysis.
Analysts also lay the blame on Lebanon’s power sharing system put in place following the end of its civil war in 1990. The arrangement requires the President, Prime Minister, and Parliament Speaker to respectively be a Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslim. While it ensures communities are represented, some protesters and analysts, including the World Bank, have argued it has entrenched the position of politicians and a culture of non-transparency.
New Prime Minister and political instability
In July, Mikati was appointed Prime Minister designate and tasked with forming a Government. To opponents, he is seen as a symbol of a failed political system—he has been PM twice before, and was charged in 2019 for illicit enrichment (a charge he denied).
Mikati, a Sunni, lacks support from a majority of Christian parliamentarians, but has gained the endorsement of Sunni MPs and Iranian-backed Hezbollah (who are Shias).
The military, which helps maintain a balance between Lebanon’s sects, has warned its strength has been undercut by the economic crisis. In June, the US and France pledged aid for Lebanon’s armed forces, as has the UK previously.
Hezbollah was already a powerful political and military force prior to the blast. It’s ability to maintain considerable influence over the state without being part of it (for example, by working through political allies) allowed it to sidestep public criticism of elites, while benefiting from state resources. However, following the blast, it was also subject to some public blame.
The international response
Since 2011, the UK has allocated £780 million in humanitarian and development assistance. This includes £27 million in response to the explosion.
In 2021/22, Lebanon will not receive bilateral Official Development Assistance from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, though funding may come from other departments or regional funds. The UK has also ended support for an International Rescue Committee-led project providing protection services to women and children in Lebanon.
The UK Government is expected to attend the aid conference on 4 August. Last September, French President Macron said assistance would be dependent on the Lebanese tackling corruption. The World Bank has imposed monitoring conditions on its support for Covid-19 vaccinations in Lebanon.
In July 2021, the EU said it was preparing sanctions targeting specific Lebanese leaders on grounds they have obstructed efforts to form a government, contributed to corruption, and committed human rights abuses. The measures are not expected to be immediately implemented.
The UK has not announced any further sanctions, beyond those already in place following UN measures. The Government says Lebanon must form a capable government and implement reforms to address the crisis.
Explainer: Lebanon’s financial meltdown and how it happened, Reuters, June 2021
Breaking the curse of corruption in Lebanon, Karim Merhej for Chatham House, June 2021
About the author: Philip Loft is a researcher specialising in international affairs.