There is a saying in Lebanon that the country functions better without a government than with one. That has never been truer than now.
Minutes after the explosion ripped through Beirut on Aug. 4, Red Cross medics appeared on the street with first aid kits, and volunteers managed traffic. Young men and women carrying water bottles went door to door asking if anyone needed help. Lebanon’s conflict-ridden past, riddled with wars and invasions, economic collapse, and rampant corruption, has steadily trained citizens to spring into action when confronted with an emergency. Within a week of the explosion that wreaked havoc in the capital, they cleaned the city’s roads, which had been made impassable with broken glass and debris.
Of course, in any other country, the army and disaster management officials would have also rushed to the spot of the explosion; politicians would have lined up to offer condolences and support. But here the state was conspicuously absent. Instead, President Michel Aoun imposed a state of emergency and granted the army expansive powers to curb freedom of movement, press, and assembly to boot out angry protesters from the streets. The Lebanese people have been both first responders and victims of their government’s response.
Mounds of shattered glass, wood, and entangled metal, mixed with household items such as half-torn books, contorted utensils, and photographs, now fill the sidewalks of the neighborhoods that were, before the blast, the heart of the city. The volunteers who wielded brooms and shovels through the Christian-dominated neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael hailed from across the country’s religious sects. Two groups of scouts, one from the Sunni-dominated northern city of Tripoli wearing maroon vests, and one from the Shiite south in green, were busy sweeping damaged houses. (The state was nowhere in sight: Police officers merely guarded the entry to the road and roped off a building that was in danger of collapse.)
Such scenes could persuade the most ardent pessimists of a potential post-sectarian future. When I asked the students about the country’s sectarian divide and sect-based power-sharing system, one 20-year-old lifted his broom and give each of the big sectarian leaders—the president, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri—an imaginary thrashing. “This is for Aoun, this for Nasrallah,” he said, “and this, a double strike for Hariri and Berri, bam.”
However, brooms and water bottles and sandwiches are not enough to rebuild damaged and destroyed buildings, nor to provide specialized medical care and resurrect businesses. Many of those affected urgently need specialized doctors, tests, surgeries, and material for reconstruction. Thanks to the country’s economic crisis, which predated the port explosion, businesses were already struggling to survive as the currency plummeted by 80 percent.
Most of those who now need aid do not believe they would get a penny if it were directed through the government. The international community, for its part, has said it will channel its assistance through independent agencies. But the Lebanese state, some activists say, is creating new roadblocks to such attempts to circumvent it. An aid worker shared with Foreign Policy an internal communication from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to local partners. It informed them “NOT” to submit documents to the Beirut municipal bureaucracy as demanded by government authorities.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a virtual donors’ conference along with the U.N., garnering $300 million as the first tranche of assistance for those who bore the brunt of the explosion, which left 170 people dead, thousands injured, and a quarter of a million homeless. Macron insisted the aid must reach those in need—and not the pockets of politicians deemed corrupt by the Lebanese. “We must act quickly and efficiently so that this aid goes directly to where it is needed,” he said.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, among others, also vowed to bypass the state. The U.S. Agency for International Development provided emergency medical kits, each of which contains “enough medicine and medical supplies to support 60,000 people,” the U.S. Embassy said, but it sent them straight to the hospitals—skirting around the Ministry of Health. Germany has promised 20 million euros ($24 million), nearly a quarter of it to the Red Cross and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to disperse via local nongovernmental organizations. It has deployed a team from the Technisches Hilfswerk to assess the damage to the buildings being used by the embassy and at least one renowned museum, the Sursock Museum.
The international aid organizations operating under the U.N. umbrella feel they can best address the requirements in coordination with trusted local aid groups instead of going through the government. Religious and secular charities have already been playing an active role in helping refugees and disadvantaged communities alike. The Norwegian Refugee Council has been using stockpiled timber and plastic sheets to seal the broken windows and doors, offering privacy to those who do not have any extended social networks and nowhere else to go. “A roof above the head of the most vulnerable is our priority right now,” said Elena Dikomitis, the council’s advocacy adviser in Lebanon. “We also intend to provide rent for three months to 2,500 families at first, and then later help homeowners with some cash so they can rebuild their homes depending on vulnerability assessment and available donor funding.”
Businesses are further down the list of priorities for most international aid agencies. Many of the destroyed edifices are business enterprises—cafes, restaurants, pubs, all-purpose shops, language schools, and art galleries—that have been a crucial part of Lebanon’s tourism industry, which is among the country’s top revenue-generators, and a crucial source of employment for young Lebanese and Syrians, along with migrant workers from Bangladesh and the Philippines. Their destruction will cause a chain reaction, further tumbling the country into poverty.
Already crumbling under the weight of a collapsed currency, the businesses are crowdfunding and have published details of their losses on their websites. Le Chef, a restaurant made world-famous by the celebrity television host Anthony Bourdain, has received assurance of funding from the Hollywood star Russell Crowe. But many others are still waiting for a lifeline.
Experts worry that Lebanon’s government is exploiting Europe’s political vulnerabilities to procrastinate on reforms, betting that ultimately they will deliver funds to avoid another exodus of refugees westward. But Bente Scheller, the head of the Middle East and North Africa division of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, says the West has leverage of its own. Since many Westerners and Western properties also suffered losses, the international community can seize the assets abroad of Lebanese politicians. “If you freeze their personal assets, until its clear who bears the responsibility for the explosion, can’t you then ask for a court order on how these should be used to rebuild the Lebanese state or to rebuild Beirut?” she told me from Berlin.
That may be wishful thinking. The last time Beirut had to be rebuilt, after the end of the civil war, then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri hired his own company Solidere to erect skyscrapers and colonial-style squares full of apartments that were so expensive that most of downtown Beirut still lies deserted. Lebanese worry that if homeowners and businesses do not get help in time, developers will move in to grab the land around these neighborhoods, stealing not just a part of Beirut but a part of the Mediterranean itself.