Amid Lebanon’s escalating economic crisis, Beirut was rocked last night by an explosion at its port. Reporters described the scene as “apocalyptic” and compared it to scenes from Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, with initial estimates putting the death toll at 78 with an additional 4,000 injured.
The explosion struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake and could be heard and felt as far away as Cyprus (200km away). The explosion has destroyed much of the city’s port, located adjacent to the central business district, with damage stretching as far as 10km from the site.
The explosion appears to have been an accident, with initial reports citing a fire that spread from a fireworks warehouse to a nearby warehouse storing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate confiscated from a ship in 2014. PM Diab has launched an investigation and says “those responsible will pay”.
Israel has denied responsibility amid heightened tensions after clashes along Lebanon’s northern border this week between Israeli and Hezbollah forces, with President Netanyahu threatening retaliatory measures just hours before the blast. Israel has since offered humanitarian assistance.
The explosion took place amid increased domestic political tensions as well, coming just three days before a UN-backed tribunal was due to give its final verdict in a trial of four Hezbollah suspects accused of involvement in the killing of former PM Rafik Hariri 15 years ago.
As the humanitarian toll continues to mount, we will refrain from too much speculation on the political and economic implications. Suffice it to say that the explosion will compound Lebanon’s spiralling economic and humanitarian crisis. Even if the blast was an accident (as suspected), it will likely exacerbate political infighting as different factions point fingers and will delay much-needed economic reforms/restructuring.
Even before the explosion squabbling was at a fever pitch, with foreign minister Nassif Hitti becoming the latest high profile official to resign on Monday, after just 7 months on the job. He accused colleagues of lacking any intention to institute meaningful reforms and warned that conflicting interests threatened to turn the country into “a failed state.”
The blast will only serve to intensify dissatisfaction over the government’s failure to respond to the crisis, especially if it is found to be the result of government incompetence. A collapse of the government led by PM Diab cannot be ruled out, which would further paralyse state functions (to the extent they exist).
For now, we simply wish Lebanon the best in dealing with this tragedy and hope that it does not compound the economic crisis by delaying the reforms necessary to prevent hyperinflation, hunger, and poverty from spiralling out of control.