Immense damage has been caused by the double explosion that has devastated Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Death, suffering and destruction have hit a country that was already in a state of shock, leaving thousands injured, more than a hundred dead, 300K people homeless and material losses estimated at more than three billion dollars.
Whatever the cause, the gigantic orange and grey mushroom rising over the port of Beirut relentlessly evokes the implosion of the political system and structures of a country devastated for years by multiple economic, political, social and now health crises, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, endless conflicts that have caused the unrestrained fall of this small country.
The modern Lebanese State, with a century of life, has suffered experiences unknown to other nations with millennial histories: a long civil war of 15 years, foreign invasions, socio-political unrest, terrorism and in addition today is the country with the highest rate of refugees per inhabitant in the world, an enormous density that has had a devastating effect. The country is still in the throes of a regional conflict that transcends its borders and has created an unprecedented shock to its social, political and economic fabric. Lebanon has survived all these shocks. But with this new catastrophe there is no sign of any respite for the country of cedars.
Beirut, in the heart of the Middle East, is a pluralistic, disconcerting, fascinating and addictive city. After millennia of occupation by different empires, and a long history of forced emigration that has brought back influences from all over the world, it has become a unique cultural, political and religious fusion.
Today it is recognized as one of the oldest cities in the world, Ottoman and French, and despite living through difficult times of decades of invasions or civil war, few signs remain of the destruction. And in the chaos, in the clash of ideas, ages and visions, Beirut has generated some of the most innovative minds: writers, musicians, architects, designers inspired by the contradictions and energy of this city where everything is possible, even if it is not allowed.
In the 20 years before the outbreak of its civil war in 1975, the small capital of this fragile and complex state attracted all kinds of people and ideas. Uncensored newspapers were published. Local banks were filled with deposits from the Gulf States. The built up area quadrupled. Beirut attracted thinkers, artists, spies and businessmen from all over the world. Today, after new wars and invasions, and new crises and recoveries, the city is the true thermometer of the region, for better or for worse.
A few hundred kilometres from Beirut, nightlife is forbidden. It is forbidden to talk about history or literature, respect for minorities, freedom of expression, women’s rights, the rights of homosexuals or secularism. Beirut is a breath of fresh air in a region where these and other issues cannot yet be expressed without complaint.
Although all this may change. Lebanon is far from being a wonderland. It is beset by serious internal and external challenges, and a political class that is a patchwork of contradictory alliances based on its survival above all else and controlled by the big regional players. Lebanon has difficulty in learning the lesson and accepting that it is a nation of minorities where everyone can live, and where coexistence is possible if there is a will.
The civil war ended 30 years ago, but politics is still dominated by former warlords and family dynasties entangled in sectarian divisions. Meanwhile, people have demands and aspirations, such as stability, electricity, water, garbage collection, youth employment, security, economic opportunity, and a state that reflects those demands and their diversity.
When Lebanon bleeds, the whole Mediterranean suffers with it. International solidarity must be fully exercised and commensurate with the losses and destruction. Action by the European Union and the United Nations is urgently needed. The catastrophe that has struck Beirut is a tragedy for the Lebanese, in addition to the many others that this people is suffering and has suffered. There are not enough words to describe the situation.
But, in spite of everything, the sun will rise again. The Lebanese remain a people resistant to uncertainty, with an unparalleled network of migrants throughout the world. Since ancient times, Beirut has been a bridge between east and west, the natural gateway to and from the region. It is a commercial, financial and university centre. Mestizo, with its rich culture, and its vibrant society. Occupied and destroyed several times, but after eight thousand years, it is always reborn as the phoenix. In fact, it is no surprise that it is renowned for its resilience.
By Anwar Zibaoui, General Coordinator of Association of the Mediterranean Chambers of Commerce and Industry