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Confronting disaster statelessly
Beirutis are no strangers to earth-shattering explosions. Stories of airstrikes, even car bombs will not be too rare among the city’s inhabitants. Yet there is an unusual amount of anger and frustration among the Lebanese when it comes to the blast in Beirut port a year ago. Why?
Because what happened in Beirut’s port wasn’t the work of some external force, but of internal negligence, an “accident” if you will. It happened because of the incompetence of the Lebanese political elite and the system they maintain. We in Turkey got a glimpse of that feeling after the 1999 earthquake, when people were left by themselves, digging in the rubble for their loved ones. The Lebanese people were hung out to dry after the explosion last year. “My government did this” was their verdict.
Did it? The Lebanese government confiscated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate from a Moldovan-flagged ship in November 2013 and had been keeping it in the Beirut port since 2014. The substance is both used in agriculture as a fertilizer and also in the manufacturing of explosives. The Lebanese authorities had been warned many times about the danger, yet they did not take safety precautions.
The explosion killed 218 and wounded 7,000 people, damaging 77,000 buildings, displacing 300,000 Lebanese. A Human Rights Watch report indicated that the explosion rendered half of Beirut’s healthcare centers “nonfunctional” right in the middle of the pandemic. “It impacted 56 percent of private businesses in Beirut. There was extensive damage to infrastructure, including transport, energy, water supply, and sanitation.”
There is never a good time to have a giant explosion in the middle of one’s city, but a pandemic is particularly inopportune. The COVID-19 related global slowdown in economic activity has led to a drastic decline in remittances, which was a major source of foreign exchange for Lebanon. The Lebanese pound depreciated by around 90 percent in the last two years, and more than 50 percent of the country’s population now lives below the poverty line. Beirut often has power cuts for 20 hours a day.
Lebanon has not had a stable government since the blast. The political crisis just makes it impossible for the Lebanese to find a way out for themselves. Why? Lebanon still has a defunct political system based on an ancient power sharing arrangement among 18 religious sects. It is a deformed version of the Ottoman Millet system, a breeding ground for political paralysis.
There is frustration even among the political elite. Najib Mikati, Lebanon's latest prime minister designate – the third one to form a government in less than a year – was on TV the other day talking about his own frustration: "We're ashamed to walk the streets," he told local broadcaster MTV sounding sincere. Due to protests, members of the political elite are afraid to go to restaurants in Beirut.
Lebanon is a country that does not have a Civil Code. All civil affairs are under the control of 18 different religious sects. Turkey adopted its civil code in 1926, which started to make it look more like a nation state. This was just three years after the Republic of Turkey was established following the Liberation War. Having discussed the situation in Lebanon a few years back, I have to confess that I only now fully understand what a former prime minister of Lebanon meant when he said “We do not even have a Civil Code.”
In Turkey, this kind of public anger and distrust has the capacity to create a landslide in the ballot box. After the 1999 earthquake, we had the 2002 election that brought the governing AKP. Our municipal elections in 2019 were a reaction to increasingly poor economic governance. Now we have wildfires ravaging the country, and many in the public blame the government for not being better prepared. They feel left alone, as they did in 1999. The 2021 Gallup Global Emotions Report cites Turkey and Lebanon as having the lowest scores in the “Positive Experiences” index.
A cynic could say that even in highly advanced democracies, changing one’s government won’t really change the way countries are governed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the socialists or center-right Christian-democrats, Republicans or Democrats running the show. It’s all the same. But maybe going through the motions of the election, of maintaining the illusion, indicates some kind of aspiration for change. Once you take that away from people, they feel like they no longer have a government.
Some degree of well-aimed hypocrisy is essential for happiness, for hope. We urgently need to get that back in this part of the world.