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Beirut Explosion Looks Like An Accident — And A Sign Of The Country's Collapse

Tuesday's blast in Beirut killed some 150 people, wounded thousands and caused destruction across half the city.
Hassan Ammar
Tuesday's blast in Beirut killed some 150 people, wounded thousands and caused destruction across half the city.

When Westerners think of Beirut, they might rely on dated notions of the city: a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990; a war with Israel and sporadic airstrikes; bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy; an attack 15 years ago on the prime minister's convoy.

So it may seem hard to believe that the biggest blast of them all — the one at the Beirut port on Tuesday, which killed some 150 people, wounded thousands and caused destruction across half the city — was an accident, possibly the outcome of neglect on a massive scale.

But that's what signs point to now. Officials have launched an investigation looking at the port warehouse that had held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used for fertilizer and as an ingredient in bombs. It has fueled many explosions around the world — both accidental and intentional.

Lebanese officials say there has been concern about this volatile cargo for years, something PrimeMinister Hassan Diab noted publicly in the first hours after the blast.

So, rather than war or terrorism, this blast brings to a head something else about Lebanon — the deep paralysis, official corruption and unaccountability that Lebanese demonstrators had been protesting in huge numbers for months before the coronavirus pandemic shut them down.

Here are some of the factors that shed light on this week's catastrophe.

Explosive chemicals languish at the port

In 2013, a ship filled with 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stopped at the Lebanese port. It had a Russian crew, and reports say it was bound for Mozambique.

The ship's former captain told Reuters this week that he had been instructed to stop in Beirut to pick up more cargo, but there was a legal dispute over port fees and the shipping company was in debt. Lawyers representing some of the crew said in 2015 that the ship had stopped at the Beirut port with "technical problems."

The ammonium nitrate, a fairly common cargo on the oceans, was impounded and unloaded; the crew had to stay on board for nearly a year and was then released.

The port's customs director says he sounded several alarms about the material. Since the blast, some port officials have been placed under house arrest.

A city of neglect and shortages

In 2015, trash choked Lebanon's streets amid corruption and infightingover solid waste contracts. The garbage crisis spawned a protest movement dubbed "You Stink."

The investigation into the massive explosion at Beirut's port is looking at the warehouse that had held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate.
Anwar Amro / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The investigation into the massive explosion at Beirut's port is looking at the warehouse that had held 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate.

More crises would come. High government debt and mismanagement caused aneconomic collapse. There's hyperinflation. Unemployment is high. The country's once-comfortable middle class is slipping into poverty. People have trouble buying bread and are selling their possessions.

Lengthy daily power outages have resulted after a corruption scandal disrupted fuel imports from Algeria. And with the country's currency losing 80% of its value since October, the government is struggling to pay for fuel from elsewhere.

Widespread street protests started a year ago. Chanting slogans like "The people want the fall of the regime" and "All means all," protesters called for the removal of the entire political class.

A rigidly divided political system

Who's responsible for all this? That's hard to say, in part because Lebanon's government is designed for no single group to be too powerful — or accountable.

Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990 with a deal — enforced by neighboring Syria — to divide power among sectarian factions. The presidency is set aside for a Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is always a Shiite Muslim. It means that the real decisions are made behind closed doors and that elections allow limited choice for the voting public.

The various sectarian groups tend to protect the status quo to ensure they each can hang onto as much power as possible. Some sectarian leaders are former warlords and worried they could face revenge or prosecution if the system changes.

The presence of Hezbollah further complicates matters. The Shiite Muslim group is not officially part of Lebanon's power-sharing deal but enjoys support from Shiites and some Christians and holds seats in parliament.

More importantly, it has the most muscle on the ground. Its militia drove Israel from the country in the late 1990s and rivals the Lebanese military in firepower. The group runs the country's international airport and gets money from vast business interests and from Iran.

In other words, the fragmented nature of Lebanese power makes it hard to organize a protest campaign targeting a single leadership — and to vote, or force, it out of power.

Full circle: Investigating the blast

Lebanon's prime minister and president have formed an investigative committee to find the cause of the blast and those responsible.

On Wednesday, a Lebanese couple inspects the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port the day before.
Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
On Wednesday, a Lebanese couple inspects the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut port the day before.

But already the country's elites are trading blame. The Ministry of Public Works and port authorities say the explosion was the fault of the judiciary, which allegedly did not act on repeated requests by port officials for a legal release of the cargo.

Judicial officials have hit back, saying that politicians are trying to scapegoat them and that the investigative committee is not impartial. They say an investigation led by establishment politicians and security officials loyal to them — rather than by independent investigators — will not bring justice.

Lebanon's elites and political leaders — including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department believes — have long had interests at the Beirut port, which brings in most of the country's imports.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah denied Friday that his group controls the port. "People think that Hezbollah knows everything that goes on in the Beirut port," he said. "Hezbollah does not run or control Beirut's port and does not interfere with it."

For Lebanese who have no confidence in their leaders, the destruction of Beirut is the ultimate example of the political rot that for too long has benefited the few at the cost of the country.

A crowd yelling, "Resign, resign, resign!" chased the justice minister and threw water on her Thursday, when she tried to visit a Beirut neighborhood. A popular slogan is "Hang the nooses." Now, Lebanese say, is not the time for compromise. But with the system rigged against them, the road to meaningful change will be a long and difficult.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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