The series of explosions that leveled much of the port area of Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, killed at least 180 people, injured about 6,000 and left nearly 300,000 people with major damage to their homes. It was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s history.
It was also the culmination of a collapse of Lebanon’s political, financial and social institutions. Even before the explosion, Lebanon already suffered from political paralysis, financial collapse, a major coronavirus outbreak, and soaring poverty and food insecurity.
Since the modern Lebanese state was created in 1943, the whole structure of government was based on sectarian sharing-out of power. Seats in Parliament were split between Christians and Muslims and the top three positions in the power structure were always distributed so that the president was a Maronite Christian; the Speaker of the Parliament, a Shi’a Muslim; and the Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim.
Tying power to sect welded in place a system that did not produce co-operation, except for mutually-protected pillaging. The Port of Beirut shows how the Lebanese system worked: The longtime head of customs is tied to Christian president Michel Aoun, while the head of the port was put in his job by the Sunni leader Saad Hariri. Shi’ite interests at the port are enforced by Hezbollah and the Amal faction headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
All parties took their shares of profit and power while every year from 2013, when the 2700 tons of ammonium nitrate arrived at the port, warnings were sent up the chain of command – “This stuff is dangerous, we need to get it out of here.”
The buck was passed around the bureaucracy, from the Port to Public Works to Defense and Security agencies. Months before the explosion, President Aoun himself was notified and said he asked the proper authorities to do the right thing. Which turned out to be nothing.
All of Beirut was shocked by the massive explosion. No one was shocked at the government ineptitude and irresponsibility that made it possible.
So, what to do now, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has issued a global appeal for help. But how? If aid is sent, who will administer it, and if the state and government of Lebanon are saved, will that mean sustaining the same old crooks and warlords who’ve let the country to go to Hell even before the port blew up?
Jeffrey Feltman is the John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. His research includes examining United Nations and other mediation efforts to draw lessons about potential improvements in multilateral conflict prevention and resolution in an increasingly polarized global context. He is also a senior fellow at the Washington-based United Nations Foundation.
Before joining Brookings, he served for nearly six years as the under-secretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations in New York. In that capacity, he traveled extensively and was the chief foreign policy advisor to both Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
As part of his U.N. responsibilities, Feltman was the chairperson of the U.N.’s Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and the executive director of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Center from July 2012 until July 2016.
Feltman was a U.S. foreign service officer for over 26 years, focusing largely on the Middle East and North Africa. Feltman was the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2009 until his retirement from the State Department, with the rank of career minister, in May 2012. Before his 2004-08 tenure as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Feltman also served in Erbil, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tunis, Amman, Budapest, and Port-au-Prince. Feltman is a two-time winner of the Presidential Service Award, as well as a recipient of State Department awards, including several Superior Honor Awards and the James Clement Dunn Award for Excellence in Leadership. The American Foreign Service Association conferred the Christian A. Herter Award for Constructive Dissent and also the Sinclaire Language Award.
A native of Greenville, Ohio, Feltman has a master’s in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s degree in history and art from Ball State University. In May 2013, Ball State University awarded Feltman an honorary doctorate. He is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy and the American Council on Germany.