Shortly after a massive explosion caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in a Beirut port warehouse last week, the Iraqi authorities began looking for hazardous materials stored at the country’s ports.
An official statement said the goal was to “avoid any repetition of what happened in Lebanon” after the ignition of ammonium nitrate fertiliser at the port levelling swathes of Beirut and killing dozens of people and injuring thousands more.
Furthermore, the disastrous explosion in Beirut, widely blamed on government negligence and corruption drew an analogy between Lebanon and corruption in Iraq’s political system and its patronage institutions.
The devastating Beirut explosion was caused by the combustion of the explosive chemicals that had been stored in the port since 2014, despite the knowledge that the materials were categorised as dangerous.
While the Lebanese government promised an investigation and to hold those responsible to account, the preliminary conclusions indicated that “inaction, negligence, cronyism and patronage” were responsible for the catastrophe.
But while the storage of nearly 3,000 tons of volatile ammonium nitrate underscores the incompetence of Lebanon’s bureaucracy, the explosion itself embodies the chronic dysfunction at the heart of the country’s political system.
As the dust settled on a city still reeling from the 4 August explosion, sadness had turned to anger and fingers were being pointed at the country’s ruling class whose corruption and mismanagement has been behind the country’s political stagnation and economic collapse.
The popular discontent has been rising since last autumn, when massive street protests broke out in Beirut and other cities calling for the ouster of the country’s political elites because of years of dysfunction.
Outrage over the colossal port blast renewed the cross-sectarian protest movement last week as throngs of Lebanese gathered on the streets of Beirut and other cities calling for the ousting of the ruling class.
Some demonstrators who had descended on the city centre erected gallows and conducted ceremonial hangings of cardboard cutouts of prominent politicians including Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Nowhere has the Beirut explosion resonated more than in Iraq, a country whose ports and crossing points are mired in corruption and that often witnesses explosions in weapons depots and fires in storage facilities.
The blast sparked fears in Iraq that dangerous material could also be stored at Iraq’s porous border points as well as at explosives depots in the heart of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
An emergency committee formed following the Beirut blast to double check storage facilities at the Iraqi ports said it had found 173 containers that contained non-explosive chemicals.
However, the committee said that all “dangerous materials” would be moved from the ports and new safety regulations would be introduced for storing such materials at ports and airports across Iraq.
Yet, scenes from both countries still bear an uncanny resemblance. In both countries, huge corruption and the incompetence of the ruling oligarchs have plunged millions of people into a living crisis.
Even before the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic broke out at the start of this year, Lebanon and Iraq seemed to be headed for a crash, as people had to deal with daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water, and limited public healthcare.
Late last year saw the unravelling of massive street protests in which people in Iraq and Lebanon were increasingly angry and frustrated at their governments’ failure to provide even basic services.
Viewed through a wide-angle lens, the political landscape in Iraq also bears a resemblance to Lebanon’s governing system of sectarian power-sharing.
In Lebanon, the essence of the problem goes back to the political process that created the modern Lebanese state following the ending of the French mandate in the mid-1940s.
The unwritten National Pact (Al-Mithaq Al-Watani) which carved the independent nation of Lebanon out of the French mandate and came into force on 22 November 1943 established a power-sharing system based on confessional quotas.
The agreement between the two most prominent Christian Maronite and Muslim Sunni leaders at the time in Lebanon, Bechara Al-Khoury and Riyadh Al-Sulh, was the label that came to symbolise post-independence sectarian politics in Lebanon.
Under the pact, the three main political offices of president, speaker of parliament and prime minister in Lebanon are divided among the three biggest communities of Maronite Christians, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims, respectively.
After the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War, the 1943 pact was reinforced by the Taif Accord that ended the conflict and divided power equally between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon.
The new agreement, named after the Saudi city where it was signed, allowed political leaders from each sect to maintain their power and influence through a system of patronage networks under the guise of communal power-sharing.
The sect-based system allowed Lebanon’s political leaders and their business cronies collectively to pillage the country, leaving fragile governing institutions and a bankrupt state.
Since the Lebanese leaders were focused only on their own advantages, they also created armed groups to maintain a status quo in which they were all invested and to tighten their grip on power.
In addition, the leaders of Lebanon’s sectarian communities at one time or another have aligned themselves with foreign powers, often inviting international and regional rivals to interfere in Lebanon’s conflicts.
The Beirut port calamity, however, has highlighted the deep-seated resentment towards the political establishment in Lebanon, which is blamed for corruption and mismanagement.
The massive anti-establishment movement that is taking shape following the explosion at the portside warehouse now wants to tear down the entire political system and to ditch state-sponsored sectarianism in the country.
In theory, that would force sectarian politicians to stand down, and it is likely to open the way for a new order in Lebanon. While the protesters are right to call for change, the question facing Lebanon is how to end the present quandary.
One idea coming up in the debate is that the Lebanese and their regional allies have exhausted their ability to end the country’s chronic crisis and that it is time for the international community to step in.
Such demands are already receiving support from many Lebanese as well as from many in the international community who believe that the deadlock provides an opportunity to take collective action in the Lebanese crisis by pushing for a reform agenda.
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is leading the international aid effort, said that he had proposed to the Lebanese authorities a roadmap of urgent reforms and promised that “no blank cheques” would be given to its leaders unless they enacted reforms and ended corruption.
“If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,” Macron said. “What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” he told angry Lebanese reeling from the disaster during a short trip to Beirut last week.
World leaders who gathered on Sunday to pledge support for Lebanon after the explosion said in a statement that international partners were ready to “support an economic and financial resurgence of Lebanon” if the “Lebanese authorities will be fully committed to the measures and reforms expected by the Lebanese people.”
As international pressure for change mounts in Lebanon, eyes are also on Iraq where there have been pressing demands for the removal of Iraq’s corrupt and incompetent ruling elites.
This is particularly noteworthy regarding the standing of the Iraqi political class, which is already close to rock bottom after months of mass protests against its mismanagement of the country.
Iraq has been facing a perfect political storm over recent months that has underlined the catastrophic ineptitude of the leaders who came to power after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraq has been rocked by widespread anti-government protests for more than ten months, with the violence and anger steadily escalating and echoing Iraqi demands for leadership change and an overhaul of the political system.
Iraq is expected to pop into a summit in Washington next week between US President Donald Trump and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi as the United States is seeking a “strategic dialogue” to help rebuilding the devastated nation.
Like in Lebanon, now is a dangerous moment in Iraq, where more political, economic, financial and coronavirus pandemic-related crises are looming and requiring a restructuring of its governing system and introducing reforms.
This is also a crucial issue in evaluating how the international community should decide to intervene in Lebanon and Iraq, when it is unclear if there is a consensus about the strategy and mechanism needed to ensure the required changes in these beleaguered countries.
The international donors summit pledge of a million euros in aid for Lebanon while calling at the same time for reforms to be made underscores the world’s dilemma of how to help Lebanon without empowering its shady rulers.
Similar fears of money falling into the hands of corrupt officials and pro-Iran militias have kept the donor states away from helping Iraq to rebuild cities destroyed in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
The challenges in both Iraq and Lebanon will continue to force themselves onto each and every world and regional Middle East agenda. The Iraqis and the Lebanese also deserve political systems that do more to reflect their views and represent their interests.
Yet, it remains to be seen if the international community can collectively forge a workable plan to help these two countries without turning their intervention into another geopolitical match among ambitious world and regional actors.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly