Najwa was in her kitchen in front of the stove, preparing food when the explosion of the port of Beirut occurred on 4 August 2020. The glass of the window completely shattered and spread everywhere around her. Her son could lift her out of the debris, but they were faced with other debris caused by shattering all the glass windows in the house.
Najwa, who was speaking to “Zat Masr”, has lived for more than 45 years in her home in a street off the well-known street of Al-Hamra in the midtown of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. She is an Egyptian, married to a Lebanese, and holds a Lebanese nationality.
Although Najwa has lived with the Lebanese people and witnessed most of its wars and sectarian conflicts even before the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and afterwards, the Port explosion had a very bad impact on her.
She says, “I lived here two thirds of my life. I raised my children here and suffered the war with my husband, who died several years ago, and I continued with my life”. Najwa does not know whether this difficult psychological impact she suffered as a result of the explosion of the port was a result of her old age, or it was really worse than the past wars? It may also be that she is not ready for this harsh experience again, or that she can predict the future of Lebanon from the past experiences that she witnessed.
She said, “The explosion was sudden, and I still feel shaky since that day. I still wake up terrified at night and weep for a long time during the day”. Beirut also is no longer as it was before the port explosion which killed 200 people, injured at least 6 thousand others, and displaced nearly 300,000 people, as well as the financial damages estimated at 15 billion dollars, when about 3000 tons of high explosive ammonium nitrate exploded in the port. Many neighborhoods and thousands of residential, historical and health buildings were destroyed.
This massive explosion, which caused these human and material losses, brought Lebanon after four months into the reconstruction scenario, so that Lebanon would experience this case again, similar to Arab cities and capitals affected by wars.
Last Friday, the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank Group launched, at a press conference in Beirut, the “Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework” in response to the repercussions of the explosion and the resulting destruction and massive damages in several neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital.
According to the official statements, the plan will span 18 months. It includes the provision of immediate humanitarian aids and the efforts of recovery and reconstruction on the medium term in order to place Lebanon on the path of sustainable development. The pan is also based on comprehensive principles of transparency, accountability and inclusiveness, with an estimated cost of two billion and 500 million US dollars. This comes at a time in which Lebanon is suffering a serious economic crisis that became worse by the repercussions of Corona Virus (Covid-19).
According to the World Bank figures, since last autumn, Lebanese banks have placed tight restrictions on withdrawals in dollars, which made depositors unable to obtain their money and savings. The exchange rate of the Lebanese pound collapsed in the black market against the US dollar, and Lebanon was unable this year, for the first time, to pay its foreign debts.
The World Bank expects that the real GDP growth rate will sharply retreat to 19.2% in 2020, after shrinking into 6.7% in 2019. The collapse of the currency led to “inflation rates exceeding 100 percent”.
As for the criminal investigations conducted by the Lebanese authorities and the Lebanese Judiciary, Professor of International Relations at the Lebanese University “Leila Nicola” said that these investigations are unlikely to meet the level of hopes that the Lebanese have in this Judiciary. Several months have passed since the explosion and no one has been accused. All what happened is that there are some junior officials who have been detained for questioning. Even in these interrogations, there is a kind of political maneuvering practiced by the Lebanese judiciary as a result of political interference.
The investigations did not include all the concerned ministers, according to Nicola, including the ministers of Public Works, Interior, Justice, and those responsible for this issue, as well as heads of government who had knowledge of the issue. The subject has been contained over several years since the introduction of ammonium nitrate to the Lebanese port without setting environmental and health conditions. Many governments, ministers, and managers of the port and customs have held responsibility during that time. There are many political officials who must be interrogated to find out whether there was negligence or there was a criminal intent in the first place, as she said. So far, the investigations does not seem suitable to the seriousness and severity of the crime that took place, and to bring the rights of the victims who were killed in the port explosion.
Regarding the French initiative introduced by French President Emmanuel Macron after the port explosion since his arrival to Lebanon, the professor of International Relations at the Lebanese University said that there was Lebanese optimism about this initiative, especially since it came after a long crisis of economic collapse, beside the major catastrophe of the explosion of the port and Corona pandemic.
But the problem -as Nicola says- is that the French initiative clashed with American conditions. “There are American political conditions for the formation of a government, and there is an American economic pressure imposed by the administration of the outgoing US President, Donald Trump, on Lebanon because he believed that these intense pressures will incite the Lebanese against Hezbollah, to stop the increasing Iranian influence in the country”.
Yet, another problem highlighted by the professor of international relations at the Lebanese University is that the Lebanese economy has been greatly affected by these intense pressures more than the degree of Hezbollah environment that Donald Trump wants to influence. Thus, any economic package to help the Lebanese will be at the expense of the poor and middle classes, because the reforms demanded by the donor countries and the International Monetary Fund will bring about privatization of state property in order to restructure the public sector, discharge public employees and stop subsidies of electricity and services. This will affect Lebanese society and increase the poverty gap.
From the Political point of view, Nicola explains, “I think that Lebanon is a small country and there have always been political interference in its affairs. We have been witnessing for a long time the Arab/Arab conflict, the Iranian/Gulf conflict, the American/Iranian conflict, as well as the Arab/Israeli conflict. All these regional conflicts find a place to erupt simultaneously in Lebanon, as we suffer today. We expect that a breakthrough will occur in the Lebanese crisis in conjunction with the breakthrough of the American-Iranian crisis after Joe Biden’s rise to power”.
This is not first experience of reconstruction that Lebanon undergoes. Rather, Lebanon had another experience during the civil war, about which the professor of international relations at the Lebanese University said, “It was a discouraging experience in reconstruction”. When the civil war in Lebanon ended in 1990 and 1991, Beirut had been destroyed but the Lebanon had no public debts. Since the announcement of the reconstruction of Beirut, former Lebanese President Rafic Al-Hariri began to borrow heavily for the reconstruction.
Nicola pointed to the private company established by Al-Hariri, Senior, under the name of “Solidere”, but it managed the Lebanese real estate in an illegal manner. It took control of real estate in Beirut downtown, with an actual value equal to billions of dollars in exchange for giving their owners and holders cash bonds in the company whose value retreated significantly after that, or in exchange for small amounts of money. This came to be known at the time as “legalization of stealing the Lebanese property”.
As for the second experience of reconstruction in Beirut, Nicola says, “It seems from the reconstruction plan that civil society organizations speak about that they are linked to external parties. Each country gives the organizations that serve its interests. Many reports inside Lebanon indicate that these organizations are no less corrupt than the Lebanese government. There are a lot of money, aid and subsidies that disappeared in a way or another, and we do not know how they were spent”.
Nicola has distinguished between the humanitarian aids provided by civil society organizations, which are announced at conferences, and the aids provided by states. The latter is provided on the condition of changing the policy and a creating a balance between Iranian and American influence in the first place, and making economic reforms in the second. This matter drives the Lebanese in general to worry.