Paul Salem and Randa Slim join host Alistair Taylor to discuss the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s massive explosion in Beirut, which killed over 150 people and left as many as 300,000 homeless. The blast caused extensive damage across the city, and compounds the stress of Lebanon’s preexisting political, economic, and health crises.

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Help survivors of the August 4 explosion in Beirut by donating to the Lebanese Red Cross or other organizations providing disaster relief.


Alistair Taylor [00:00:10] Welcome to Middle East Focus. I'm Alistair Taylor, MEI's editorial director, and today we're going to be talking about the tragedy in Lebanon. On Tuesday, just after 6:00 p.m. local time, a massive explosion hit Beirut causing extensive damage across much of the city. The photographs and videos of the explosion and its aftermath are staggering, and the scale of the damage is hard to fathom. According to latest figures, over 150 people were killed. Thousands more were injured. And as many as 300,000 people have been left homeless. To discuss this tragic situation, we're joined today by Paul Salem and Randa Slim. Paul is MEI's president, and Randa is a senior fellow and the director of MEI's Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogs program. Paul, Randa, thank you both for joining us today. Although I certainly wish it were under different circumstances.

Paul Salem [00:00:54] Thank you, Alistair.

Randa Slim [00:00:55] Thank you.

Alistair Taylor [00:00:56] Paul, what do we know about what happened at this point and what has been the impact so far?

Paul Salem [00:01:02] Well, what we don't know is why exactly, what happened to trigger this explosion, and was there you know, was it either just general negligence or something more nefarious? The facts that we do know is that there was a big store of ammonium nitrate, about two thousand seven hundred tons that had been there for years. There's a whole story of why they were there, why it was allowed to stay. There's been calls for an investigation to be launched as to why this highly dangerous material was there. A fire started in the vicinity of this storage, this ammonium nitrate, ten or fifteen minutes before the big explosion. It's not clear why that fire started. Was it just happenstance again or some kind of sabotage? Nobody knows. And then the large ammonium nitrate, as you know, storage exploded, destroying, as you said, much of the port and devastating much, much of the city.

Paul Salem [00:02:07] Economically, I mean, you've mentioned the loss of life, the injuries, the homelessness. There's also a massive economic impact. The port contained Lebanon's wheat storage facilities. The loss itself is about two to five billion dollars to rebuild the port. That's 10 percent of Lebanon's GDP in a country that was already bankrupt. A lot of medical supplies were also lost. And in addition to wheat supplies, so both the food supply and the medical supplies under immediate strain. And thousands of businesses were devastated or destroyed by the blast, as well as the loss of the port. So that calculus of what further economic pain-in a country that had already, you know, the currency had already lost 80 percent of its value, inflation running at 90 percent; unemployment crossing 25, 30 percent, poverty above 50 percent.

Paul Salem [00:03:00] So really a horrific event at a horrific time. We can talk later about immediate steps. President Macron visited Lebanon right away on Thursday and seemed to be coordinating immediate relief. But there's also the longer term question of Lebanon's economic recovery. And will this event impact the politics of the country moving forward?

Alistair Taylor [00:03:24] We'll drill down into that later. But Randa, while we've got a sense of what happened, I'm really curious how something like this happens. How is it that thousands of tons of highly explosive materials get left in a warehouse in the middle of a densely populated city for years on end? It's just kind of mind boggling.

Randa Slim [00:03:42] This is a very good question. And I think that's why there are some parties in Lebanon that are calling for establishing a fact finding commission that will include Lebanese experts and international experts to find answers to two questions. How did this happen? Why this amount, two thousand seven hundred fifty tons of ammonium nitrate? Why has it been stored since 2014? Is it only negligence? That's one hypothesis. There is another hypothesis that there are certain parties in Lebanon who want it kept there for different reasons. Some people are saying because there were some parties who are trying to sell it and make money out of it. And some people are saying, well, there are some parties that might want to use it for military purposes. It's very clear that the Lebanese army, when it was asked about it in the past years about whether they have a use for this material, there are documents now that are being revealed by the leadership of the Lebanese armed forces in which basically they answer the question, saying, no, we have no use for this. It's highly sensitive material. It can be very dangerous for general security. And you have to basically deal with it. Shipping back when it came. That was the answer of the Lebanese armed forces, when a few years back they would ask by the Port Authority whether they have any use for this material.

Randa Slim [00:05:07] So that is this one question is why have they been kept? How has this amount of explosive material kept for so long since 2014? And then there is a second question, which Paul has addressed in his remarks, which is what was the trigger? What happened? You know, there are, again, different hypotheses about how this could explode, you know? And so that's why you need this kind of fact finding committee. And there is a lot of expertize, by the way, in the international community. I just did a Wikipedia search off accidents or disasters related to ammonium nitrate. And from 1916 until 2020, the last one being the one in Lebanon two days ago, there have been 33 disasters around the world. You know, some of them in the United States. The incidents related to ammonium nitrate that happened in Texas in 1947 led to as many deaths as we are seeing now in Lebanon and cause equal amount of destruction at the time. So that is international experience in accidents of the sort. And so having international experts to assist the Lebanese experts in finding out what exactly happened is important.

Randa Slim [00:06:17] And the other importance of having international experts in any commission is that it increases the credibility of any report coming out of the Lebanese authorities. Right now for a great majority of the Lebanese population, there is no trust whatsoever in whatever reports a Lebanese government or even Lebanese security agency would issue. By the way, the Lebanese armed forces leadership today asked the military police to lead the investigation on what happened at the port. So I think having international experts working along with Lebanese experts, to really identify what happened and provide answers will increase the credibility of the report and will address a lot of the theories, many of which are conspiracy, that are now being circulated in Lebanon.

Alistair Taylor [00:07:04] Paul, Lebanon is no stranger to disaster and the Lebanese people have been through a lot. But this seems kind of categorically different than anything that's happened before. How are people responding and what's the mood like in Beirut?

Paul Salem [00:07:15] Well, then the mood is, as you can imagine, extreme and desperate. And the rage has reached a fever pitch. This incident, either it's, you know, criminal government negligence, or if it has anything to do with Hezbollah and Hezbollah needing these stores and, you know, Israel had, you know, did something or they blew up by mistake... So it if it's a general government responsibility or it is a Hezbollah slash government responsibility, either way, the reaction in a way is the same among the population. Now, obviously, the population, much of it was already in rage since October and focused on the disastrous collapse of the currency, the imprisonment of people's wealth in the banks, so they can have access to them, the free fall of the economy, loss of jobs. So this was the worst period for Lebanese in modern history. And then they were hit by the worst blast in Lebanese history. So it's even hard to fathom how extreme the situation is.

Paul Salem [00:08:31] I think this has led to a new urgency of demands of sort of the Lebanese society protest movements. I think we're going to see massive protests in the days ahead. And I think this will go obviously immediately for immediate calls to the immediate resignation of the entire government. You may recall on Monday, one foreign minister had resigned. Others was seeming to be thinking of resignation. This government was sort of a dead man walking already, completely ineffective. And I think the cause will be white hot for it, to quickly resign and try to push for an effective government that can deal with the disaster relief and hopefully begin serious negotiations with the IMF. Now, that's the mood, you know, among the political opposition and civil society groups who are fervently planning for these massive protests. How the corrupt oligarchy will respond is another matter.

Paul Salem [00:09:30] I think it's very important to note that the blast and the international reaction and the reading of it also, I think, is moving the needle in terms of the international position on Lebanon. My reading, and it's only been 48 hours, but you see it in a bit of, you know, the French president's visit. And I see it in a lot of sort of conversations here in Washington, D.C., that previous to this blast, the international community's position was, you know, if you do--you the oligarchy, the governments that be--undertake reforms, then we can move ahead with the IMF and will engage, you know, we'll try to figure things out. And that was when the Lebanese oligarchy was only accused of impoverishing the Lebanese population, something that the Greek government has done, the Icelandic government has done. Not exactly a criminal act, but effectively, no matter what, you know, the detailed reasoning is, this oligarchy and this ruling group along with Hezbollah, you'd have to say planted a bomb in the nation's capital and the bomb went off. I mean, this is an act of such massive criminality, and I sense that the international community is going to go now well beyond asking for reforms in the medium term. Yes, reforms, but certainly a new government with the power and the legislative power to undertake reforms. But I am also expecting that they're going to seriously begin saying that for any serious longer term assistance, that there needs to be an effective and clean and independent president. And there needs to be a clean and effective speaker of parliament. That this charade that the Lebanese cabinet can get things done, I think everybody's fed up with that charade. And nobody's willing to throw good money after bad, especially after this act of historic criminality against one's own capital and one's own people.

Alistair Taylor [00:11:47] Randa I'm curious to get your thoughts on that point as well. Is that your sense of the mood among the international community?

Randa Slim [00:11:52] I think so. I mean, today, President Macron, during his visit to Beirut and after meeting with the heads of all the political blocs, including, by the way, Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, made it clear that business as usual is not going to cut it going forward. What was there pre- this disaster is no longer acceptable. And so I join Paul's assessment that there is a new kind of understanding and a new kind of momentum in the international community about no longer accepting the status quo, which had been really in place, you know, since Taif. After all, remember this political system that we have and the political economy that has fed it has been in place since the end of the civil war in 1991. And since then, you have had prime minister come, prime minister go, but the rottenness in the regime has been there and has been in a way supported or enabled by the international community, which over the years, since the end of the civil war, organized a number of attempts at helping with Lebanon's economy and providing humanitarian assistance, like right after the 2006.

Randa Slim [00:13:10] And so we have seen now, again, thanks to the pressure put on by the civil society since October 2019, we have seen this movement in the international community toward conditionality in any kind of assistance going to the Lebanese government. And I agree with Paul, after this tragedy of Tuesday, I think it's not only conditionality in terms of economic reforms. I think now they are going to be insisting on serious political reforms. And that's where the problem is.

Randa Slim [00:13:41] Today President Macron talked about the need for a new political contract. I think the fact that you have a French president talking about this is going to be spun by some groups, and it's already being spun by some groups in Lebanon, is that this is neocolonialism. You know, that this kind of dialog needs to happen among the Lebanese led by Lebanese, which I totally agree with. And so I think what we are going to see is that there will be hopefully if the international community can sustain the momentum and sustain its interest, because that's a big if, there is already, we have a pandemic which the international community is suffering from. There is already economic downturn, you know, in most countries, you know, in the West and almost everywhere else. And so if this momentum that we are talking about can be sustained.

Randa Slim [00:14:31] So I think what you're going to see is a phased intervention. So in the short term, the emphasis is going to be on humanitarian assistance and relief. You know, you have 300,000 households who have no homes now because they have been destroyed during the blast. Food security, availability of medicine. We are seeing a spike in COVID because all of the measures put pre-incident in terms of social distancing, masks, were pushed aside in the aftermath of the tragedy. So in the immediate, in the short term, you have to focus on these aspects. These are going to be the priority: providing food, providing shelter to those who need it, helping hospitals, you know, deal with COVID, but also deal with all the people who have been injured from the blast, providing financial assistance to families to live. I mean, remember, after all, many of these families that lost their homes have no means to repair. So you need to provide some kind of assistance, cash assistance to help them rebuild. And that's where I think the international community can play also a role in putting together a process which will involve nonpartisan professional non-corrupt civil society organization to work with the donor community in channeling these funds that are coming from the International Committee through this mechanism, bypassing the Lebanese government. Because that's one of the major demands that Lebanese citizens were presenting to President Macron today, is that, do not send any humanitarian assistance, do not send any money to this Lebanese government.

Randa Slim [00:16:03] And so I think we are going to see activism moving into a more energized phase. But in the short term, it's going to be focused on humanitarian relief and helping people regain a minimum modicum of being able to basically live and sustain themselves.

Paul Salem [00:16:21] There is an element that might enter the situation, which is the issue of sanctions. There's many in the US government and so on who have been proposing that for a while. Obviously, there are sanctions on Hezbollah. There is now the Caesar Act. There's the Magnitsky Act. And I'm sensing in Washington a revisiting after the blast that this might be, again, come to the fore, and these sanctions could potentially be quite impactful and game changing. And they might include some of the high officials of government. President Macron was asked about that today, and he said not now. I mean, that's the French position, it has nothing to do with the American position. But I sense that on the U.S. side in this administration that tool might be revisited soon and might apply to very high officials in the government and that would be a little bit like how the U.S. in Iraq insisted, Obama insisted, that, OK, if you want us to help you, you've got to get rid of Prime Minister Maliki at the time, and we have to agree on somebody else. It's become quite clear to the international community that attempting any serious effort-and I'll be frank here-you can change prime ministers as much as you want, but with the two other heads, which is the current president or son of law and Speaker Berri, to imagine that you can undertake any serious reform or change while power remains in those hands is a mirage.

Paul Salem [00:18:03] So either the international community ends up insisting on an agreed change of all the major leaders to get something serious like the U.S. did in Iraq. But I do fear sanctions might just be unilaterally slapped on and that will change the dynamics in Lebanon tremendously because Lebanon needs to be accepted into the international community. Hezbollah needs the speaker of parliament to be, you know, the face to the international community. They need the president to be that nice face to the international community. So it could get pretty complicated pretty quickly.

Randa Slim [00:18:41] I agree with Paul that you might see that happening. And I can see Hezbollah's reaction because until recently, before the blast, Hezbollah had two red lines. Nasrallah said that in a speech in October 2019 that President Aoun has to finish his term and you cannot have early elections, meaning changing the speaker of the parliament. And the experience of this cabinet has shown that decision making power lies with Gebran Bassil, the son in law of president Aoun, and with Nabih Berri. You know, the Prime Minister really is a figurehead here, and all the ministers, in fact, cannot even appoint one person in the ministry if it's not approved by one of those two men.

Randa Slim [00:19:25] So they have to be changed. The question is going to be, how is Hezbollah going to react? And I can see Hezbollah coming back and tomorrow Hassan Nazrallah will be giving a speech. It's going to be an important speech to watch because it will include their reaction to present Macron's suggestion of the need of a new political contract in the country. And they're going to basically say, well, you know, Hezbollah called for a constituent assembly nine years ago. Hezbollah has been calling for the implementation of the Taif Agreement having to do with the elimination of political confessionalism. And it is the other parties who are now endorsing President Macron, who stood against that. So any tool of political contract is going to open a hornet's nest in Lebanon, a country where no census has been done since 1932. And so I can see that kind of political debate in the country moving into that direction and Hezbollah moving into that direction because now also part of people's demands especially when you listen to TV interviews and to see and see people who have met with Mr. Macron on the streets, they are not only calling for changing, you know, all these people for not giving them assistance through the government, but also they are calling for something to be done about Hezbollah and Hezbollah weapons.

Randa Slim [00:20:40] So we are going to enter a new level of political instability as this push by the international community for change in the political system, which I think is going to come because, I mean, it's no longer a political liability. It's now it's a criminal regime. It's a criminal enterprise. And so it has to be dealt with accordingly.

Alistair Taylor [00:21:03] Any final thoughts, Paul?

Paul Salem [00:21:04] Well, I mean, our thoughts are with our friends and families in Lebanon, obviously. I'm heartened to know that the civil society movements and I'm in touch with many of them are very, very vigorously active and planning massive protests and trying to move as rapidly as possible forward. I'm also heartened that the international community is paying attention to Lebanon. The Lebanese cannot be left to this criminal oligarchy or criminal regime, as Randa called it. It almost at this point, after the blast, falls under the international principle of Responsibility to Protect, which was ignored in Syria but should not be ignored in Lebanon. So my thoughts are obviously with everybody in the country, but that this is also a time of action.

Alistair Taylor [00:21:54] We'll have to leave things there for today, but we'll be keeping a very close eye on the situation going forward and our thoughts remain of the people of Lebanon. Paul, Randa, thank you very much, and thank you for joining us today.

Paul Salem [00:22:04] Thank you.

Randa Slim [00:22:05] Thank you, Alistair.

Alistair Taylor [00:22:06] And thank you as well to our audience and to our production team for their work on today's program. We will see all of you next week.