The horrific scenes of the explosion in Beirut on August 4th of 2020 shocked the world, with graphic videos of the massive blast widely circulating through the news, and on social media. Experienced by much of the world as yet another disturbing scene of 2020 viewed through a smartphone, it adds yet another incalculable burden of loss onto the Lebanese people, who were already contending with the COVID-19 pandemic and a domestic economic collapse. The explosion, in which 2750 tons of extremely combustible ammonium nitrate sitting in the harbor was ignited by a fire, leveled much of downtown Beirut, killing over 200 people and leaving around 300,000 homeless.  In addition to the devastating human loss, the economic damage is estimated to be in the tens of billions, devastating a city which was once referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East”. The explosion has led to a multitude of government officials resigning and a renewal of mass antigovernment protests, as the Lebanese people see the blast as yet another example of government inefficacy and incompetence. There is considerable evidence that the Lebanese state was well aware of the ammonium nitrate’s presence and its potential risks long before the explosion, yet failed to react, amounting to a catastrophic failure of governance.  Although an interim government has been formed, protests are continuing, reflecting the deep dissatisfaction with the country’s established political elite.

 Although rebuilding from such a horrific explosion proves to be a long and arduous task in itself, the Lebanese state was already deeply in crisis before the explosion and the pandemic, with the International Monetary Fund projecting a 13.8 percent fall in the country’s GDP in 2020.  The state’s financial system collapsed as it defaulted on its debt in March 2020, leading corrupt banking elites to smuggle billions outside of the country. The Lebanese currency has plummeted in value, and the potential for a descent into hyperinflation remains a risk. The country is also profoundly unequal in its economic distribution, undoubtedly fueling popular resentment against the economic elite. More than half of the population currently lives in poverty, while the top one percent of Lebanese collect almost a quarter of the national income. This extreme inequality reinforces the idea that the economic and political elite of the country are more concerned with economic extraction, rather than any effective governance or improvement of citizen’s material needs.

These economic issues are accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed the country to its breaking point. Hospitals are overwhelmed as an influx of COVID-19 patients overburden the already weak state health infrastructure. The pandemic has also severely depressed Lebanon’s tourism industry, which typically was a crucial source of revenue for the small, relatively resource-poor state.

What’s Next?

Given the immense problems facing Lebanon, it is not inconceivable that the country could become a failed state. Although the international community is currently distracted by the pandemic and their respective national responses to it, the implications of state collapse in Lebanon can not be ignored. An outright collapse of the modern Lebanese state has the potential to cause immense destabilization in the Levant region, and the potential for renewed sectarian violence within the country. Although religious tensions have certainly relaxed since their cataclysm in the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, state collapse could potentially lead to renewed religious factionalism and violence. Lebanon is somewhat exceptional in its religious diversity, with around 28 percent of the population practicing Sunni Islam, and 21 percent practicing Shia Islam according to Statistics Lebanon. Lebanon also is home to a significant number of Christians that make up around 35.5 percent of the population, a majority of which practice Maronite Christianity. Around 5 Percent of the country are Druze, and the country also has small populations of Jews and Bahais. The balance of power within the country between these religious groups is unique, as the nation’s president is always Christian, its prime minister a Sunni, and a Shiite is the speaker of the country’s parliament.  This system, a vestige of French Colonial rule, maintains a careful balance of power, yet in many ways perpetuates the sectarian divide by enshrining it legally. This is further complicated by the Shiite political party and militant group Hezbollah, who maintains an armed wing that is considered a terrorist group by Israel and much of the Western World. A state collapse could see Hezbollah and its financial backer Iran try to gain further influence within the country, which would almost certainly precede increased military tensions or conflict with Israel. As Hezbollah maintains a dual power system, with its own social services, political apparatus, and military, the absence of a functioning state would almost certainly legitimize it in the eyes of many disaffected Shiite Lebanese. If the state crumbles, and Hezbollah appears to be the only functioning authority, it could profoundly change the balance of power both in the country and the region.

A renewal of domestic sectarian violence or another conflict with Israel would almost certainly cause a mass exodus not only of Lebanese refugees, but also of the over 1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees that currently reside within the country. A refugee inflow into Turkey and towards the European Union of the scale that a broken Lebanon would cause could prove exceptionally destabilizing for the EU, which has and continues to struggle with refugee allotment between its member countries. Eurosceptic political parties and states who are reluctant to accept another huge flow of refugees could have new impetus to try and push for leaving the EU. Although this analysis remains hypothetical, it is by no means far fetched given the current fragility of the Lebanese state. Although the Lebanese diaspora as well as many charity organizations have rushed to support the Lebanese financially, the country’s governmental and economic problems are deep, and almost certainly require massive support from the international community for remediation. France has already taken a lead on this, and Lebanon’s negotiations with the IMF for a bailout package are ongoing. More leaders in the EU need to recognize that problems on their periphery cannot be ignored, and the international community cannot allow another Middle Eastern state to collapse.  


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