Interview: Beirut blast exposed a global system

Rima Majed spoke to Nick Evans about the blast that devastated Beirut in the context of an existing political and economic crisis. Rima Majed is assistant professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut.

Beirut port destroyed
Damage caused by 4 August explosion, Beirut port. Photo: Mehr News Agency (CC BY 4.0)

rs21: Can you set the scene in Lebanon before the blast?

Rima Majed: Things were already changing very quickly in Lebanon in the past year. We have experienced a financial collapse, a revolution quickly met by repression and counter-revolution, and a global pandemic that came to impose its weight on the already depleted healthcare sector and precipitate the financial free fall. And now this blast that has physically affected more than half of the city of Beirut, but with social, political and economic repercussions that go way beyond the capital.

However, the roots of the present crisis go way back. Lebanon’s political economy, since its inception a century ago, is based on a liberal economy and an unfettered capitalist system that mainly relies on the financial sector. The banking sector, dotted with highly attractive regulations such as banking secrecy and freedom of capital movement, has served as a haven for the oligarchy of the Arab region and has attracted huge capital throughout the various phases of the history of the region. The post-Civil War [1975-90] era in Lebanon was marked by the adoption of neoliberal policies, not necessarily in terms of rolling back the state, but rather in using the state for the benefit of a certain class and the reinforcement of the private sector. State employment was actually on the rise as sectarian leaders used the spoils of the state to entrench their leadership through clientelism, but government expenditure on infrastructure and on productive sectors decreased, while Social Security, which had already been limited before the Civil War, remained at a low level.

The neoliberalisation of the 1990s is best seen through the reconstruction projects led under the auspice of then Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (assassinated in 2005), and the efforts to privatise some of the most vital sectors of the state. Added to this was the lack of investment in the already few productive sectors in the country, whether agriculture or industry; and the systematic destruction and cooptation of labour unions. The Lebanese Lira (or Lebanese Pound) became pegged to the US dollar in 1997 at the fixed rate of 1507.5 to one dollar. This dollarised economy and the heavy reliance on imports, which account for more than 80% of the country’s consumption, including basic needs such as fuel, wheat and medication, meant that the economy depended heavily on its dollar reserves. Around 13% of GDP came from remittances from the Lebanese diaspora, given that Lebanon’s main export to the world is human beings. Almost every Lebanese is born to be exported.

However, the current financial collapse can be traced back more directly to the year 2016, when the central bank (the Banque du Liban) – under the leadership of its much celebrated governor Riad Salemeh (in post since 1993) – introduced financial engineering by offering unbelievably high interest rates in order to attract deposits. This was a failed attempt to address the drying up of the bank’s US dollars reserve, a trend with many causes, including the drop in oil prices, the sanctions on some Lebanese banks, and the drop in remittances. Instead of starting to plan serious structural changes in the system, they were only digging deeper. Depositors’ money was used to maintain the dollar peg, provide loans to the state, and pay the huge dividends to the local bankers who form the main creditors to the state. The money that people have put in the banks has thus evaporated; or rather, it has been stolen by the oligarchs that form today’s mafia regime. Lebanon has a huge debt, $100 billion, but most of this is held internally, by Lebanese banks. At a time when depositors are unable to access their funds in the bank and to withdraw any of their US dollars money, a handful of bankers and politicians managed to smuggle more than 6 billion USD outside the country between October 2019 and December 2019; a clear operation of theft. It is in this context – financial crisis, widespread social tension that exploded during the October revolution, and the global pandemic – that the 4 August blast happened.

The revolution

The October 2019 uprising was a social explosion, resulting from increased austerity and social pauperisation. This was qualitatively very different from previous mobilisations, and we’ve seen many waves since 2005. That was specifically because of the class composition of the mobilisation, at least at the very beginning, and its scope across the various regions in the country. The revolution started with the initial mobilisation of the poorer sections of society in Beirut following the government’s decision to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls. They started by blocking the main roads in the capital by burning tyres. This quickly spread to other regions, culminating in the evening with the complete shutting-down of the country. This was the start of a revolutionary movement that quickly gained traction and attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. Although the uprising clearly started because of the difficult economic conditions and the financial collapse that had started to be felt since summer 2019, the banking sector used the road blockades and mobilisations as an excuse to close its doors. For the first time in the history of the banking sector in Lebanon, the banks were closed for ten days. This had not happened during the Civil War, this did not happen during the July war with Israel in 2006. Even in the worst security conditions, banks have always opened. The closure precipitated the collapse, and was used as a turning point to impose illegal capital controls.

Then things started to free-fall from there. The currency peg was no longer in place, and the currency started to devalue very quickly; people have lost almost 80% of their purchasing power. The social implications of that are huge. It means salaries are now almost worthless since most people are paid in Lebanese pounds, but it also means that with a lack of dollar reserves, importing our basic needs has become a major issue. We soon feared shortages of fuel, wheat, and medical supplies. People were laid off en masse. Lebanon was already a country with a high rate of unemployment and it became even worse. World Bank estimates suggest that more than 50% of the Lebanese population already lives under the poverty line and that was back in January, so now we expect this to be higher. This is a society where the majority of people have no jobs and no income and rely on aid or charity, or remittances from a family member that lives abroad.

The pandemic

It’s in this context that the Covid-19 pandemic started. By this time, the counter-revolution was already at a high point. The counter-revolution was there from the very beginning, but it intensified with the formation of the technocratic government in January 2020. The aspects of the police state were becoming clearer. With the beginning of the pandemic, they immediately declared a lockdown and one of the first things they did was to evacuate all the squares where the protests were taking place, and to take down the tents which was where the protests had been taking place for months. So they removed the physical presence of the revolution.

Then the currency devaluation deepened, more and more people were losing jobs, people had no access to basic needs. On top of that, we had longer hours of electricity outage and no access to clean water. In Beirut, we sometimes had around three hours of electricity a day, and people had no money to pay for generators. Everyday life became very difficult. Again, it is not like we had 24 hours of electricity before, but it just became so much worse, and people who had been able to afford a generator were no longer able to. So we thought we had already seen it all. Bailout talks with the IMF failed. The IMF was a horrible option, but the IMF talks failed not because the Lebanese politicians and negotiators were against neoliberalism, but because they did not want any kind of supervision or accountability. With the failure of the IMF talks and the unwillingness of the ruling mafia to seriously deal with the crisis, the prospects of a way out were becoming dimmer.

So the whole world had left Lebanon and its residents to face this double catastrophe on their own: the financial collapse, and the ruling mafia that caused it. Here we’re not just talking about the Lebanese but also the refugee population. This is a country with 1.5 million Syrian refugees, half a million Palestinian refugees, and a quarter of a million domestic workers from South Asian countries and African countries. All of these countries have been very, very deeply affected as a consequence. We know about the horrible kafala system, but these people were paid in dollars, and were working for a minimum salary that they could send back home, and now they don’t have dollars any more, and in many cases they’re not being paid at all. So the social implications of such an economic crisis are huge at so many different levels.

And then came the explosion. People were already expecting the only way out of the economic crisis would be a security crisis. There was already talk about the possibility of civil war or an Israeli strike: in the two months before the explosion, Israeli drones were heard every night in Beirut, in the south and in the mountains. But I don’t think anyone expected something on the scale of this explosion.

rs21: Can you tell us about the immediate impact of the explosion and what it exposed?

RM: When the explosion that killed Hariri happened in 2005, I was around the same area where I was this time, in the Hamra district. The assassination took place in a street not too far from the port where the explosion happened this time. I remember that it felt so huge back then, and that glass fell from some buildings around us. But that was nothing compared to what we experienced on 4 August 2020. I thought that I had already experienced a huge explosion in 2005, but the scale of this was really like a nuclear bomb. The earth literally shook under our feet and within a split second, glass was shattered from every building, people were covered in blood instantly, and rubble had blocked most streets. It looked like a scene from a horror movie. Hospitals were heavily damaged too and most of them were already at capacity within minutes after the explosion.

The scenes on that day were really horrific, and it exposed the weakness of the system. There was no kind of security or protection. There was no guidance, we didn’t know what to do, we didn’t understand what had happened and everyone initially thought it was an explosion concentrated in their area, given the immensity of the damage. But then we realised that the whole city was destroyed, and part of our lives was destroyed with it. It was just insulting that the first news we got, the first official news, was that it was fireworks that had exploded. The amount of blood and the number of people we’d seen seriously injured: we knew it could not be fireworks. The immediate damage the explosion left on the city and its inhabitants is of an unprecedented scale. More than 200 people killed, around 50 still missing, more than 7,000 injured, and more than 300,000 displaced. If anything, the explosion not only exposed a system that is incapable of protecting people, residents, or citizens; but also a system that is murderous and directly responsible for what happened. Everyone felt that we were really left to each other.

The immediate response of people in the aftermath of the explosion was to take things into their own hands. This is something that is recurrent in Lebanon. The expectation is that ‘the state is absent’ – even though it becomes very present when it needs to repress protesters or arrest activists. Many individuals feel the need to fill this gap through volunteering and not waiting for the state to step in. But this so-called ‘resilience’ is also one of the problems: ‘resilience’ is also about agreeing to move on without justice, and it’s about accepting that you don’t have a state to hold accountable even though you still pay taxes, you still are subjected to state laws, and you still are repressed by the state’s security apparatus. So much anger was channelled into this rhetoric of resilience, people took to the streets with their brooms and shovels, and felt that this was their ‘revolutionary’ contribution.

Personally, this just made me more angry. I could not understand why we needed to very quickly make things look good to the outside world. Why did we need to clean the streets when the government has used our tax money to pay a private company to clean the streets of Beirut? Why did we have to invade people’s houses without their consent, thinking that we were helping them? And on top of it all, why did we have to put our lives at risk again, when we still did not know which buildings were structurally damaged and at risk of falling down? I mean, just leave it, this is what we lived through. Solidarity was already loud and clear in all the acts of help that friends and family have offered, and it was important not to leave anyone behind and residents of the most badly hit neighbourhood already knew each other and were helping each other. But we didn’t need the cameras and the boasting about aid and humanitarian relief. We needed space for silence and recollection after we had been deafened by the detonation of that explosion. We needed to mourn, to safely collect our pieces, our houses, our lives, and our memories. Solidarity and support were surely a priority, but there was no need to embellish the disgustingly ugly truth of what had happened to us.

State repression

The first thing that the state did after the explosion was to announce a state of emergency, first in Beirut and then nationally. In practice, this meant giving power to the army. The first mobilisations that happened after the explosion were repressed with unbelievable violence: live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Where did they get all this tear gas from? What is interesting is that the tear gas is actually from France. So just a few days after Macron visited and told us how concerned he was for the Lebanese people, we were being attacked by the state with the very tools of repression that the French sold them. The injuries on that day were very serious. A committee of doctors held a press conference saying that the injuries that they had seen after the protests were unacceptable under international law.

Although Lebanon is often presented as a democracy (albeit a ‘consociational’ one), this is clearly quickly unravelling, with the regime’s authoritarian aspects that are becoming more and more entrenched by the day. We have seen the effect of this in that mobilisations in the streets have almost disappeared, and people are scared, and rightly so. It is scary. In the shock of the explosion, the first things we heard from people like [Secretary General of Hezbollah] Hassan Nasrallah or the president of the republic were on the dangers of cursing or insulting politicians. After bombing us with 2,700 tonnes of chemicals, their priority is that we don’t curse them. And the discourse threatening the return of the civil war is also on the rise, which indicates that these parties are getting ready for it if needed, since a civil war is not simply the result of social or political strife, but rather a decision that requires armament and funding: only those who can mobilise that can take us into a civil war. There is no such thing as ‘sliding’ into a war; it is a decision.

Housing

The explosion also exposed the question of housing. A lot of neighbourhoods around the city have been destroyed. A lot of talk started very early on about reconstruction. It’s the same lingo that was used after the Civil War. We’ve seen what ‘reconstruction’ has done to the city with Solidere. [Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth, a private real estate company that carried out the neoliberal reconstruction of Downtown Beirut after the Civil War.] I don’t think that what we need to do now is reconstruction. Of course, some buildings will need to be rebuilt and demolished, but in most cases it’s about rehabitation: it’s about renovating buildings to make them liveable. And it is about giving priority to the most vulnerable populations and the poorer neighbourhoods. The focus so far has been especially centred on the neighbourhoods that were already gentrified and where prices were increasing. The neighbourhoods that are poor or that have migrant or refugee populations were overlooked in the first few days. Aid did not arrive there initially, and it was the social solidarity of inhabitants of these neighbourhoods that helped with the first response after the explosion.

Politics of aid

Then you have the politics of aid. We see how political parties have already started to meddle with that process: they’ve divided the neighbourhoods, and it’s the usual clientelism, the networks of who gets aid and who doesn’t. There’s also the danger of the rising xenophobic discourse against Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees or migrant workers. ‘Progressive’ urban planners are starting to talk about the importance of listening to what people want in reconstructing their neighbourhoods, but there’s also a danger here. People are complaining about why the aid is going to the Syrians and not to them, and why the domestic workers are taking the food boxes. So it’s also dangerous just to say we want to listen to what people want without starting off from the standpoint that the more vulnerable populations are to be protected first.

Of course, for Syrian refugees it’s a double explosion – these are people who moved a few years ago and tried to settle in a context that was already very tough. Now everybody wants to leave, everybody who can of course. So there will be the question of who is able to leave, who has another passport, who can find a job abroad, who is able to apply for asylum, and those who will stay are those who are unable to leave. We seem to be witnessing what I would call an ‘exodus’ already. Most of the youth are applying to leave, mostly to Canada. Again, this will also have huge social implications.

Capitalism

Of course, the explosion has also exposed the corruption of the regime. But it’s not just corruption, it’s also what this global system is. Of course, there is a huge problem with corruption and negligence: these explosives were stored in the port for six years. But it’s not an insignificant detail that when the judges were contacted about that, they were trying to do a business deal, and the explosives stayed put because they couldn’t agree on that deal. So it’s also the horrific outcome of what capitalism can do. It is profit over human lives, it exposed how disposable we can all be in the face of capital accumulation. And then all of these crises are left for individuals to deal with alone: there are no unemployment benefits, there is no universal healthcare, incomes have lost their purchasing powers, so how do you survive?

rs21: You mentioned the hypocrisy of Macron presenting himself as the saviour of Lebanon, while France sells the state tear gas to repress its people. Can you speak more about the role played by France and the rest of the ‘international community’?

RM: It’s unfortunate that Macron was received by a considerable section of Lebanese society as a saviour. In the first hours people really needed to feel that someone was in charge, someone was going to take care of things, and it was absent. So when Macron appeared, he appeared as the only one who cares. But of course it was also very naïve: there were some people even calling for the French mandate to be back, and signing a petition for that! [Syria and Lebanon were under French imperial control – ‘The Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon’ – from 1922-43.] Of course, Macron was here not because he loves us: it’s clear that this is part of a bigger geopolitical struggle in the region.

The whole approach of Macron’s visit to Lebanon was very colonial. He went to the official residence of the French ambassador, known as Residence des Pins, and but called on the Lebanese politicians (or criminals) to come meet with him there. He gave them a deadline: on 1 September he’s returning to Lebanon. Despite the performative solidarity with the people, it was clear that Macron was trying to save the Lebanese ruling class, and he was just here to ‘discipline’ them. It’s clear that the imperialist powers don’t want to remove this class, they just want this class to behave better. Macron called for a few reforms: he was very keen on electricity, and it’s important to know that electricity was in the hands of the French before it became the Électricité́ du Liban. And they said if you do the reforms we are asking for, we will give you the money of the Cedre conference [the gathering of investors in Paris in 2018 which raised $11 billion for investment in Lebanon, conditional upon economic reforms and supervision by institutions like the World Bank and EU].

The international involvement in Lebanon quickly escalated from France to everyone in the world. Trump was quickly also involved and the FBI is now going to be part of the investigation. The British navy is on the Lebanese shore, the French and the Americans are here. The Iranians are also positioning themselves in this disaster. The Russians are playing a big role that is not covered enough in the media. Ignoring the role of Russia in the region doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Lebanon has two borders: Syria, that is controlled now by Russia (and Iran), and Israel. Everyone jumped on the international conference for Lebanon, and then we saw a few days later the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. Expectations are that other Arab countries will also follow in signing peace agreements with Israel. It’s clear that there are huge geopolitical shifts happening in the region. We don’t know exactly yet what’s happening on those negotiation tables but it’s clear that something big is being cooked.

The movement in Lebanon

Compared with the hopes of October and the belief in the power of collective agency, it now feels that the scale of what we are faced with is so huge. How do you deal with the navy on your shore? With the soldiers from around the world in Beirut? What do you do with all of this military presence? It has become very, very difficult to deal with all of these different layers. In October, we all became economic experts, we investigated the financial system, and we felt we understood the system and we could start to dismantle it. And then there was the pandemic, and we all became medical doctors, and had to decide how to deal with it: is it safe to mobilise? How does the virus travel? What are the risks? Who are the most vulnerable? etc. And now we have become experts in explosives and have to confront this whole geopolitical scene…

So it’s a very complex situation. The makeup of the opposition in Lebanon is also complex and is also very divided, especially among the left. I’m not calling for unity between reactionary movements and radical revolutionary movements, but even within the left, it is very divided. We need the tools to analyse the moment, and this is what we lack. I’m not talking about Realpolitik, but about revolutionary tactics. What is the priority now, how do you move, how do you organise? For many, there is still a rejection of organisation. It’s the typical new social movements paradigm – and there was also initially a rejection of politics, a notion that what we are mobilising against is corruption, and it stops there. This is also the result of 30 years of neoliberalism, 30 years of political stagnation, and 30 years of doing things in a certain way.

There are some groups that are trying to come up with an alternative government, but I don’t think this is what we need. We need to acknowledge that the reality is that most power lies outside state institutions in Lebanon. This is why electoral politics, the calls for early elections, can be very dangerous. Early elections will probably just reproduce the same class. But let’s say that we win all the seats and we take the parliament. We still won’t be able to do anything because this is a mafia system, where armies and militias from the Civil War are outside the realm of the state. Clientelism is not just about giving you a job or paying your tuition, it’s also about security. These militias follow us to our houses, they threaten us in our neighbourhoods. This is why I say it’s not a democracy. So no, early elections are not a good option for us. We need power that comes from below and for that we need to organise.

New tactics

But it’s not like we can’t do anything. We should be pushing for doing things radically differently. For example, after the explosion, we have a housing crisis. 300,000 people have lost their houses. Instead of talking about reconstruction and donations to pay for rent, and for people to be relocated to other neighbourhoods, why don’t we just start a squatters’ movement? There are so many empty housing units around Beirut that are owned by the bankers and the politicians. They keep them empty on purpose. Why don’t we just break in and take them? Maybe there is this little window while these leaders are so busy with the geopolitical scene.

So it’s about changing the tools completely, it’s about occupying the spaces we want. Instead of saying there’s no state, so we will go and remove the rubble and clean the street, I’d be going and getting our public housing as a right. I don’t see that we’re there yet, but I think that these are options and these are ways that might become the only options forward because it’s becoming very, very difficult to survive.

We also need to think about uneven development. The whole country relies on the port of Beirut. Virtually all exports and imports are through the Beirut port. Now they’re trying to operate in the port at maybe 10% of operations, and they’re trying to operate through the Tripoli port. But why don’t we have these other ports in other places? Why don’t we have public transportation? For example, if you develop the port in Tripoli and you put in place a good public transportation scheme it can solve a big problem for many people.

So we need to start thinking about those alternatives. People say we don’t want to make the same mistake as Solidere, so we will reconstruct, with those developers, but we will ask them to be a bit more careful. No: we don’t want that. We need to ask those big questions of ‘reconstruction for whom’, and ‘at the expense of whom’? As long as we don’t ask those questions, we’re not getting anywhere, we’re just reproducing the same thing.

Class transformations

There’s also something that I think is important for a leftist audience. In the past year, there have been huge class transformations – very, very fast. A new class of people are paid in ‘fresh dollars’, and this is mainly NGOs or international organisations. The people who have dollars are the new rich, and people who are paid in Lebanese pounds have become the new poor given the huge deterioration in the currency’s purchasing power. And there are the people with their money stuck in the bank. Locally we call these deposits ‘lollars’, because they are dollars that are no longer US dollars but some version of Lebanese dollars stuck in Lebanese banks. I’m not talking about the top bankers who have already got their money out of the country, but the rest of society.

There is this huge transformation and this is where we see that those who are paid in dollars are now jumping to buy property in the areas that were hit by the explosion, or in other areas, because real estate has become more affordable for them. This is also shifting a lot of things. I think it’s very important to keep an eye on what is happening in terms of the emergence of a new class in the city.

rs21: In the autumn, you talked about learning the lessons from the revolution in Sudan, and talked about tentative beginnings of new forms of labour organisation. Has anything come of this, and how is this affected by the class transformations you are describing?

RM: There is organising happening but it’s very, very difficult. For example, as university professors, we are organising. The American University of Beirut, for example, is the biggest employer in the country. They laid off 800 employees in one go. It’s difficult to organise – I don’t have to tell you that university professors are not the most revolutionary class. But we are trying and we have already managed to pressure, it is still limited but we hope it will grow. It also exposed how weak our organisational structures were and how the idea of ‘striking’ has become so alien to most workers and employees.

A labour movement needs people to believe in organising collectively. This coming year I think we will see more of those efforts materialising but the economic crisis is also a double-edged sword. It would make sense that people need to organise because that is the only way to protect themselves, but also there is this logic that even if they pay me half a salary, at least I still get a salary. Employers use the same old tactics of harassment, threats and intimidation. This is why I think that labour organisation is very important because this is what the system is.

So these are crucial fights. It’s difficult to organise but we need to keep trying. I think organising labour in this country is also about organising the unemployed because they are the majority now. This is why we use every platform that we are given to talk about how important it is to organise, and how important it is not to buy this discourse that we don’t have a state, so we carry on alone. I know that the state is a problematic entity in itself, but with the scale of the disasters we are going through, we can’t deal with them individually or in small groups.

rs21: What kinds of international solidarity are most useful? And how do we make it sustained?

RM: We’ve been seeing a lot of solidarity, and it’s been really heart-warming. The first response is always aid and donations. This is needed – but it’s also complicated in terms of who gets this aid, and where it goes.

But beyond this humanitarian response, there is a political role to be played. What is happening in Lebanon, what is happening in Belarus, what is happening around the world is not disconnected. I think that a political movement in Britain can benefit us more than the donations. In that sense, it’s about pressuring your government into not doing what they’re actually doing now, which is coming here to save the oligarchs and the ruling class of this country. All this comes at a time when there is a revolution that had really cornered them a few months ago: they saved them back then, and now they’re saving them again. You also need to challenge this lingo about how Lebanon needs a consociational ‘democracy’, because sects need to be managed this way. They actually never listen to us, because we’ve been saying this is not what we need for a very long time.

You can also ask them to freeze the accounts of Lebanese bankers and oligarchs who have actually stolen the money, and smuggled it out, after the revolution, illegally. It is sitting in bank accounts in Europe and the US. There are properties as well. Marwan Kheireddine, who is one of the biggest bankers in Lebanon, has just bought a flat in New York worth $10m at a time when we can’t get $50 out of our bank accounts – so where did he get that money from?

I know that these are little tactics here and there, but it can help those of us who are fighting here. This will also feed into a broader struggle against capitalism, and how capital accumulation happens on this planet, because it’s all related. It is related, what the bankers in Lebanon have done, to what is happening elsewhere and it’s about drawing the links between our struggles. At this point, it’s about creating conditions where our struggle against capitalism can become what we want it to be.

When Macron and the others arrived, all of our local politicians became puppets, they all had meetings in embassies and they were given guidance by the imperial (regional or global) powers. At the same time they’re giving cover to the ruling class, not to the people. As progressives, we need to stand in solidarity with each other, the same way as they are standing in solidarity with each other. They all came together and sat together and had supper, and are now cooking something (probably poisonous) for us. So this is what we need: we need political solidarity.

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