A massive explosion caused untold destruction and bloodshed in the Lebanese capital yesterday. This tragedy was a disaster waiting to happen, and will provoke the anger of the masses against the corrupt clique at the top of society. Only working-class struggle can put an end to this intolerable situation, Alan Woods writes.
Beirut has awoken this morning to witness the grim aftermath of a catastrophic blast that devastated the centre of the Lebanese capital, demolishing buildings, overturning cars and other vehicles, and causing windows to shatter over a wide area.
Over many years, Beirut has seen many horrific scenes of destruction but this was perhaps the most shocking event to have struck the city.
Videos taken on people’s phones showed dense clouds of smoke, quickly followed by a blast that sent shockwaves extending for many kilometres. The first explosion was followed by a new and far bigger explosion, which could be heard as far away as Cyprus.
A huge mushroom cloud, bearing a sinister resemblance to that which follows a nuclear explosion, rose high in the sky above the city. All hell was let loose, as buildings collapsed and tons of glass showered down like a hail of shrapnel onto frightened people.
Hundreds of dazed and blood-spattered people wandered the streets seeking assistance. But the hospitals of Beirut – already crowded by the coronavirus pandemic – were filled to overflowing. And many people must still be buried under the rubble, to which the centre of this proud city has been reduced.
The exact number of killed is still not known, but must be far greater than the initial reports that spoke of “dozens” killed. This was a time of day when people usually strolled the streets after the worst heat of the day had ended. And this was in the port, an area crowded with bars and restaurants.
The head of the Lebanese Red Cross says that there are over 4,000 people injured, some in a serious condition, and that the number of fatalities may reach 100. Given the scale of the devastation, even that figure would seem conservative.
Many people remain missing. Some victims are still trapped under collapsed buildings, as rescue workers are continuing to search through rubble at the port, risking their own lives, as the damaged structures are unstable and in danger of collapse.
The blast destroyed crucial grain silos at the port. The country depends on imports for about 80 percent of its wheat supply. But the port of Beirut will be put out of action for some time.
This is a human tragedy on a truly apocalyptic scale. And it will have the most serious consequences for Lebanon.
The crisis in Lebanon
This horrific explosion has shaken Lebanese society to the core. It comes at a time when the country has been torn apart by economic, social and political crises.
The economic crisis has reduced the majority of the population to poverty. Lebanese workers are facing horrifying conditions, with a collapsing currency, soaring prices and rising unemployment. Increasingly workers are unable to feed themselves.
Panicky politicians, fearful of the reaction of an angry population, are falling over themselves in a desperate attempt to salvage something of their authority, which was already reduced to rubble even before the present calamity.
Now they are promising everything: the guilty will be punished; homes will be rebuilt; a million or more windows shattered in the blast will be repaired – and all at the government’s expense.
Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab pledged that those responsible for the massive explosion at Beirut’s port will “pay the price”. He has blamed today’s catastrophe on the explosion of 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which can be used to make fertilisers and explosives.
But it would be far easier to accomplish the promised miracles than to repair the shattered reputation of the ruling clique. Nobody trusts this government any more. Nobody believes anything that it says. Now they are demanding explanations for the disaster that has struck.
Who is responsible?
The first idea that occurred to many people was the possibility of a terrorist attack. Given the extreme instability in the region, and Lebanon’s particularly vulnerable situation, such a possibility could not be ruled out. But it does not seem to be the most likely explanation now.
Another possibility was that it was down to some foreign power. Lebanon has long been the subject of meddling by all kinds of foreign powers, so this too was perhaps a logical assumption. The finger of blame could be directed to Washington, where Donald Trump’ aggressive attitude to Iran would make Lebanon a likely target.
But in this explosive part of the world, the Americans have learned from hard experience the dangers of getting involved too closely in Middle Eastern countries. If it were to engage in a major terrorist act like this, it would call on the services of its friends in Israel.
Relations between Lebanon and Israel have become even more strained in the recent past, with violent flare ups increasingly common on the border between the two countries. Not long ago, an Israeli attack inside Syria killed a soldier of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which swore revenge. So were the Israelis responsible?
The Israelis instantly denied all responsibility for the explosion in Beirut. Such official denials, of course, can be taken with a very large pinch of salt. But in this case, they may be correct.
Apart from anything else, such a firm denial is in flat contradiction to Israel’s customary response to accusations, which is neither to confirm nor to deny. It is extremely unusual for them to depart from this method, which inclines us to believe them – at least on this occasion.
Much more interesting was the reaction of Lebanon's government. Its Internal Security Chief said the blast occurred in an area where highly explosive materials were stored. That may be so. But this is an explanation that explains precisely nothing.
Although the exact cause of the explosion is not yet clear, it is quite clear that such a monstrosity could never have occurred unless it was connected with the pervasive corruption that characterises the ruling capitalist elite that has plundered and exploited Lebanon for many years.
Only now, after a terrible catastrophe, have most Lebanese learned about the existence of 2,750 tonnes of deadly ammonium nitrate, that have been stored in a hangar at the city's port and have lain there for the past six years.
But public records and documents published online show senior Lebanese officials knew for this period that the ammonium nitrate was stored in Hangar 12 of Beirut's port. And they were well aware of the dangers it posed.
A disaster waiting to happen
Al Jazeera has shed some light on the origins of this deadly cargo:
“The cargo of ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon in September 2013, on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan Flag. The Rhosus, according to information from the ship-tracking site, Fleetmon, was heading from Georgia to Mozambique.
“It was forced to dock in Beirut after facing technical problems at sea, according to (PDF) lawyers representing the boat's crew. But Lebanese officials prevented the vessel from sailing, and eventually, it was abandoned by its owners and crew – information partially corroborated by Fleetmon.
“The ship's dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in Hangar 12 of Beirut port, a large grey structure facing the country's main north-south highway at the main entrance to the capital.
“Months later, on June 27, 2014, then-director of Lebanese Customs Shafik Merhi sent a letter addressed to an unnamed ‘Urgent Matters judge’, asking for a solution to the cargo, according to documents shared online.
“Customs officials sent at least five more letters over the next three years – on December 5, 2014, May 6, 2015, May 20, 2016, October 13, 2016, and October 27, 2017 – asking for guidance. They proposed three options: Export the ammonium nitrate, hand it over to the Lebanese Army, or sell it to the privately-owned Lebanese Explosives Company.”
“One letter sent in 2016 noted there had been ‘no reply’ from judges to previous requests.
“‘In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount’ to the Lebanese Explosives Company.
“Again, there was no reply.”
“A year later, Badri Daher, the new Lebanese Customs Administration director, wrote to a judge once again.
“In the 23 October 2017 letter, Daher urged the judge to come to a decision on the matter in view of ‘the danger ... of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there’.
“Nearly three years later, the ammonium nitrate was still in the hangar.”
A corrupt capitalist regime
Foreign journalists and observers, who are guilty of either extreme naïveté or extreme stupidity, ask how it is possible for vast amounts of highly explosive material to be stored for so long (apparently since 2014) in the middle of a heavily populated area in the very centre of the country’s capital?
They may find such things surprising. And the more surprised to learn that nobody asked any questions about this incredible state of affairs. No inspections were carried out. Or, if they were, no reports were ever given, no arrests were made, and this vast gun powder keg was left alone until it blew the port of Beirut sky high.
But nobody in Lebanon dreams of asking such questions, for the very good reason that the answer is well-known to them. This is how public affairs are conducted in Lebanon. Thus, things are. Thus, they will always be, as long as the present rotten system is allowed to continue.
Most Lebanese are very clear on what the root causes are: all-pervasive mismanagement in a state run by a corrupt capitalist political class. Beirut's port is known to locals as the “Cave of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” – a place where vast quantities of misappropriated state funds are stashed away and lavish bribes are paid to officials to avoid the painful necessity of paying customs duty.
The politicians and bureaucrats have got away with these crimes for decades. But all things have their limit. And the limits of patience of the masses in Lebanon have now been reached. Yesterday’s explosion was only the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
Al Jazeera reported the words of Rima Majed, a Lebanese sociologist and political activist:
“Beirut is gone and those who ruled this country for the past decades cannot get away with this. They are criminals and this is probably the biggest of their (too many) crimes so far.”
The gang of thieves that run the country have presided over an unprecedented economic collapse. These people are corrupt to the marrow of the bones. There has been a virtual collapse of the Lebanese pound. The Lira has lost a huge part of its value.
But while the official exchange rate is one US dollar per 1,500 Lebanese lira, on the black market it is possible to buy at 4,300 lira per dollar. The rich can make a quick killing by speculating on the appreciating currency. They grow even richer, while hyperinflation has destroyed the living standards of the poor and liquidated the life savings of the middle class.
A tiny handful of super-rich capitalist parasites have made vast fortunes out of swindling, thieving and corruption. They have plundered public finances, merrily enriching themselves while piling up the public debt to the point where, inevitably, the Lebanese government had to default on its debt in the month of March. They have literally reduced their country to bankruptcy.
The government is turning its hopes to the IMF and other international loan packages. But the international bourgeois were not very keen about handing over large amounts of cash to a bunch of corrupt crooks in Beirut.
Not that they were particularly worried about the moral aspects of corruption, but simply they feared (quite correct) but the gentlemen in Beirut would pocket the cash, and run up new debts, which they would not be in any position to repay.
Consequently, they dragged their feet. Now, however, faced with a human tragedy of appalling dimensions, they will be forced to give at least something. Again, not so much for humanitarian reasons as out of fear of the consequences of a complete collapse of Lebanon in the entire region.
But so-called foreign aid will not solve the problems of Lebanon. Merely piling up more debts will not solve anything. Not a single one of the basic problems will have been addressed, and the people of Lebanon presented with the bill.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which has hit Lebanon harder than most countries, has added general misery. Workers are faced with the option of either starving at home or risking death at the hands of the virus.
Drive them all out!
As long as life in Lebanon is controlled by a handful of greedy billionaires and their corrupt political puppets, nothing substantially will change.
Hezbollah, which claims to stand for the poor people, has led a national unity government since the 2018 elections. But what has it done to help the poor and the working class? It has carried out austerity policies, which are against the interests of the people who voted for it.
The new Lebanese government, led by Hassan Diab, has completely failed to fix any of the problems facing the country. This should shock no one, as it was never intended to. The government is backed and endorsed by Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.
These same parties and politicians were involved in the last government, which ran the country for over two years. This is not a government of change, but a government of the status quo that led Lebanon to the impasse it faces today.
No more trust can be placed in the half-measures of the politicians in power. All of them must be removed. The masses can only trust their own forces
Fundamental changes needed
Last year, the county was rocked by mass demonstrations, it united all sections of the exploited people against the government, cutting across all lines of sectarian and religious divisions.
In a small country of six million, nearly 2 million protestors took to the streets demanding the fall of the government. That was a real inspiration for workers and youth all over the Middle East – all over the world, indeed.
Even the coronavirus pandemic has not halted the revolution. On 28 April working people again streamed into the streets of Lebanon in an open show of force against the government.
Workers and youth of Lebanon!
The time has come to put an end to this intolerable situation.
What is required is not this or that reform, but fundamental change – a revolution, in fact.
In your hands you hold enormous power. Not a lightbulb shines, not a wheel turns, not a telephone rings without the permission of the working class.
It is necessary to mobilise that force to overthrow the vicious, corrupt and unjust regime that has brought your country to its present lamentable condition.
Do not listen to those who try to persuade you to stay off the streets, to await better times, to believe that the same people who reduced you to ruin will now perform miracles on your behalf.
This is a lie, a blatant, scandalous lie – like all the other lies with which you have been fed for so long.
You can have no trust in the government, and no trust in those parties and leaders that support it, directly or indirectly.
Particularly dangerous and counterrevolutionary are those forces who seek to divide you on sectarian or religious lines. The only strength of the working class lies in its unity. We must not allow anybody or anything to undermine it.
Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’ites, men and women, young and old – all the oppressed and exploited in society must unite against the common enemy. United we stand, divided we fall! Let that be the fighting slogan of the Lebanese socialist revolution!
The masses can only trust their own forces. Once they are mobilised to change society, no force on earth can defeat you!