Middle East, Politics, Top Stories, World Affairs

Lebanon’s Malignant State

Some 30 years after the end of its dirty civil war, Lebanon has cultivated a well-developed preference for discretion. One can only imagine the collective gasp of its political class last week when a spark in a ramshackle warehouse set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port since 2014. Scores were killed and thousands injured in Lebanon’s capital city. The sound of the blast was heard across the Mediterranean as far away as Cyprus, where some thought they had suffered an earthquake. The figurative shock waves, laying bare the ineptitude and indifference of a malignant state, will reach much further. After the chemical explosion showered Beirut in broken glass, it wasn’t long before public demonstrations flared up, in a reprise of last autumn’s protests against Lebanon’s endemic dysfunction. So overpowering was the popular revulsion against the political culture of criminality and neglect of the country’s needs in 2019 that it required both semi-official violence and a cosmetic change in the government to quell. The same ingredients of another prolonged protest movement are once again in evidence.

The devastation loosed by a vast reserve of neglected industrial explosives forced Prime Minister Diab to announce the resignation of the government on Monday, although President Aoun has requested that it stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet can be formed. This is not much cause for relief. No elections have been scheduled, and this reshuffle will likely yield the appointment of a new prime minister by the existing parliament. The status quo maintains an elaborate patronage network that has allowed the well-connected to grow fabulously rich even while the people have become mired in immeasurable hardship. Without structural reform, state institutions will therefore remain in the hands of a thoroughly polluted political class beholden to the whims of the part-mafia, part-militia known as Hezbollah.

Once upon a time, it was assumed that the people of Lebanon had no choice but to turn to a rotten elite. The Levantine state is manacled to a power-sharing system that dates back to—and was the precondition for—the end of its fratricidal 15-year civil war in 1990. The diverse governing coalition that upholds this multi-confessional order is accustomed to looting the state so long as its constituent parts appear to deliver for their respective clan. The venal demagogues and ancient warlords that make up the ruling order have lived by their wits, weathering successive storms and reminding their flocks of the dangers of moving beyond tribalism. But the mounting popular discontent, verging on despair, presents grave problems for the ruling order. In a time of mass privation, tribalism has lost its allure. Wholesale economic collapse is not a remote possibility. For many Lebanese, economic distress is already a reality exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment has scaled new heights, with more than half the country—pushing upwards to three-quarters—now living in poverty.

Meanwhile, a government run on cheating the people careens toward insolvency. The country’s foreign currency reserves have been depleted by years of debt mismanagement, which caused depreciation of the Lebanese pound—long pegged to the dollar—by more than 80 percent since October. For an economy that relies heavily on imports, a cycle of hyperinflation seems inevitable. In March, it failed to make a $1.2 billion payment for foreign bonds, the first such default in Lebanon’s history. The Lebanese state, in other words, is an unadulterated mess that fails to provide a bare minimum of public services. It leaves heaps of garbage to fester while the night-time streets of Beirut are plunged into darkness by electricity cuts that last as long as 20 hours a day. This level of waste and squalor brought about by sclerotic political and financial institutions are made no more tolerable by the nation’s lack of genuine sovereignty.

Lebanon remains a nation with two armies, the official armed forces and Hezbollah. The Party of God, acting in the name of the long-relegated Shiite minority and backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, is the nation’s dominant political force. If forced to defend the established order that has enriched it and its political allies, it would almost certainly prevail against the state. There is a widespread belief among government ministers and sectarian fiefs that, while the West cannot be openly scorned, Iran has to be accommodated. And Iran, through its proxy Sayyed Nasrallah, dictates that the current arrangement must remain firmly in place. But a considerable and growing number of Lebanese are no longer wedded to the obsession with balance among religions and sects as a means of keeping the peace. This reigning assumption has worked for so long because Lebanese seemed to recognize their desperate plight as a cramped country with no room for genuine liberal and meritocratic institutions. No other option but this flawed and fraudulent but equal power-sharing system seemed conducive to the nation’s survival.

And yet, for all the peace and quiet wrought by this old pact, this dispensation looks to be on its way out. Its harvest has been a “state within a state” that corrupts the rest of the state, and keeps any hope of real prosperity at bay. Meanwhile, the Party of God holds the power to decide the timing of the next confrontation with Israel to be launched from Lebanese territory. (On the heels of the explosion, Nasrallah feigned ignorance, declaring that his knowledge of the Beirut port paled in comparison to his knowledge of the Haifa port.) The younger generation—less religious than its parents, less scarred by memories of civil war—appears to have little use for this system, and is more interested in scrubbing the current sectarian stain from public life.

The magnitude of the explosion at the port summoned memories of the car-bomb that killed the prime minister, Rafic Hariri, in February 2005. Hariri’s murder was the culmination of a series of assassinations of Lebanese politicians and journalists who opposed the Syrian presence in their country. (A long-stalled international tribunal blessed by the UN is due to deliver a verdict later this month in the case of four Hezbollah members, in service of their masters in Damascus, accused of his assassination.) For a time, Syrian forces departed and a portion of Lebanese sovereignty was restored. Before long, however, there was a palpable loss of interest in Lebanon on the part of the United States, and its local prestige waned while Iran’s prestige waxed.

In recent months, the Syrian Baathists have almost entirely subdued the democratic rebellion that broke out in their own land. And without greater interference from the West, it is now for Syria’s holy Hezbollah proxy, and in turn that proxy’s primary patron in Tehran, to decide how pitilessly to repress the next Lebanese revolution.


Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.

Feature image: Damage from the huge blast that devastated Beirut on the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the city’s port / Alamy Stock Photo.


  1. If a chemist reads this, please clarify: ammonium nitrate is used in ammpho-style explosives, but there must be a fuel, the nitrate by itself is sold casually in sacks and seems to be treated as quite harmless. Farmers don’t consider it dangerous at all. What gives?

  2. Found this:

    Prof Geoffrey Maitland CBE FREng FIChemE, Professor of Energy Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London, said:

    What is ammonium nitrate?

    “Ammonium Nitrate is a salt which takes the form of a white crystalline solid, not too different in appearance from common table salt (sodium chloride). It is found naturally but is made in large quantities by reacting the gas ammonia with nitric acid. In itself it is quite innocuous, being non-poisonous like sodium chloride and stored properly (in water-tight containers) is relatively stable. Its main applications are as a fertiliser and as a component in explosives used, for instance, in mining.

    Is it explosive – why might this have happened?

    “If kept isolated and unconfined, it is quite stable. If in an open space where the heat can escape, if heated it decomposes to oxides of nitrogen (which are a health hazard) and water vapour but will not catch fire. However, if it comes into contact with an intense source of heat and ignition, such as a detonator or an intense fire for some time, and is present as a large bulk mass (e.g. confined within containers or sacks, which may themselves be flammable) and in a confined space, such as a warehouse, then it can explode. It decomposes rapidly to gases, because of the confinement heat cannot escape, the gases rapidly expand and the explosion occurs. This releases an enormous amount of energy, and sends out a shock wave as the surrounding air is rapidly compressed which propagates very rapidly over the surrounding area and does enormous damage to buildings and people. This is what seems to have happened in Beirut yesterday.

    Is there anything that you can tell from the footage of the explosion?

    “From the footage there was initially a large cloud of what looks like white/grey smoke from behind the white building which may be the storage warehouse. So this indicates that there may have been a fire close to or even inside the store, which was probably the source of heat (and maybe of ignition for flammable packaging) which set off the explosion of the 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate reportedly stored there. When the explosion happened, a new mushroom shaped cloud rapidly developed and expanded rapidly over a wide area, inland over the port and out over the water. This has an orange, red/brown colour which is characteristic of nitrogen dioxide, one of the decomposition products of ammonium nitrate, which is a very good indicator that this substance was involved and the likely source of the explosion. The mushroom type cloud is formed by the rapidly expanding gases which rise upwards as they are heated and so have a lower density than the surrounding air. They rise in the stem of the mushroom and then because they are rising very quickly give rise to turbulent instabilities inside the cloud which give recirculating air/gas regions at the top which cause the cloud to balloon out and have its characteristic mushroom shape. The pressure shockwave radiates outwards through the air much more quickly and its effects are felt much further away within seconds. You can see buildings raised to the ground instantly when the pressure wave reaches them. You can imagine what this will do to any humans in its wake. They stand little chance of surviving.

    Is there anything that you can tell from the extent of the damage and how away the blast was felt?

    “Aerial photos and film indicate that the damage spread over several kilometres and there are reports that the blast was felt several hundred kilometres away in e.g. Cyprus. This just illustrates how much energy was released so rapidly from almost 3000 tonnes of this chemical. It confirms that a large amount of material must have been involved and that the fire transitioned to a detonation limit to give such a large, rapid explosion.

    Any other comments?

    “It seems the material had been impounded and then stored for some 6 years or so. It could be that long-term storage had caused some deterioration of the ammonium nitrate and made it more susceptible to explosion. For instance, if the storage was not airtight, in the humid conditions of Beirut, the salt could have taken up large quantities of water from the air which would cause the granules and pellets to fuse over time into a large consolidated mass from which heat and gases from the decomposition could not escape as easily as from a dispersed granular, free-flowing pile of fine particles. This would have just added to the confinement effect which increased the risk of an explosion once a source of heat was applied.

    “Ammonium Nitrate fires are notorious – they seem to occur every 10-20 years, causing major loss of life and widespread damage. The lessons are learned for a while but unless the safety precautions are improved and then permanently monitored, and there is a change in culture that this is a continuous process that requires constant vigilance, not just putting in place a few improved measures at the time. Big accidents include:

    – Oppau, Germany, 1921 – 400 dead, 2000 injuries, 700 homes destroyed

    – Texas City, USA, 1947 – 600 dead, 5000 injuries, 500 homes destroyed

    – Toulouse, France, 2001 – 30 dead, 2000 injuries, 500 homes damaged

    – West, Texas, 2013 – 14 dead, 200 injuries, 150 homes damaged

    – Tianjin, China, 2015 – 163 dead, 798 injuries

    “So despite lots of experience with these accidents, global learning is poor. As well as putting much better safety mitigation measures in place and making company management embrace a top-down safety culture, communication between manufacturers and users of these and similar materials across the world is very poor – largely because embedding ensuring the users know about all the lessons from the past and bring in best practice is still not widespread practice.”


  3. Thanks very much Morgan, I’m educated. I really had no idea the stuff could be dangerous on it’s own.

  4. The stuff was meant to be transported to Beira, Mozambique (produced by a Georgian firm,under Moldovian flag on a rusty Russian vessel…), who was supposed to pay for it, the Africans themselves? If it was for fertilizer, thus food production, probably some donor aid program, or was it a deal (whose?) to lay hands on some resource, mining, hardwood, or something? and was everybody happy that it was stalled for 6 yrs in Libanon?? (I just now learn that the Ministry of Transport, Mozambique, had never any knowledge (at least, said so) of this hazardous remittance to Beira harbour). No complaints?? Or all a complot with unknown backgrounds, related possibly to the war in Syria?? It seems that the wife of Fritz Haber, the German chemist and inventor of the stuff (binding gaseous N into ammonium and nitrate), never was very happy with Fritz’s envolvements and dangerous inventions, in the end, she committed suicide.

  5. Fritz Haber’s is a great, tragic story. Genius scientist, invented chemical fertilizer, basically permanently altered the entire biosphere of the planet by increasing global nitrogen fixation rates by an order of magnitude. But what he is most remembered for, ironically, is that he also made nitrogenous poison gases for the German military in WWI, which ultimately were the precursors of Zyklon B, the gas notoriously used at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. His wife couldn’t live with what he had done in the war and killed herself; Haber himself appears never to have felt bad about his service, seeing it as his patriotic duty to use his science to help his country during the war. His involvement in Zyklon B is ironic, though, because Haber was Jewish – an intensely patriotic German Jew. Such a tragic figure; highlights just how perverse and self-destructive Nazi anti-Semitism was for Germany.

  6. Indeed, a real tragedy all that, but I never (unlike his wife) had much doubts about the good nationalistic intentions of Fritz, he even got the international Nobel prize It is estimated that his poisonous gas in WW I caused less than 100.000 casualties (and use of gas in war like situations soon was copied by many other nations, even now in the Middle East), but without his invention of nitrogen fixing for fertilizers, world population would have been billions less than it is now, thus a very positive balance. Without ammonium and nitrate in nitrogenous fertilizers , yields of wheat, maize and rice would have been a meagre 2 to 3 tons/ha, instead of the 7 to 10 tons now. So much extra food worldwide thanks to Haber, Imagine! And Zyklon B (as a non-insecticide, human poison) and Auschwitz, of course, only came long after his death!

  7. ANFO. Not “ammpho”. Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil explosives. Normally, in industrial situations, the AN is mixed with 2% to 10% fuel (diesel) oil. Normal explosives use 8% FO.
    Ammonium nitrate is classed as an Oxidising Agent, and is in its own class as an explosive.

  8. Well, not long before Auschwitz – he lived long enough to see Hitler in power, and one of his last acts was to get his family to the UK, as he saw, like many other Jews, what was on the horizon. It has been on my mind a lot these past few months – at what point does a Zeitgeist of hatred directed against your ethnicity become scary enough to move your kids to another country?

    As far as chemical fertilizer goes as a technology, it’s true that there are billions more people alive now than there would have been without them, but that’s sort of a mixed bag in terms of good vs. bad. Plus chemical fertilizers are also responsible for marine dead zones and toxic algae blooms. But yeah, probably the bottom line is that it’s better to have the Haber process than to not have it. In the long run, though, I expect that it will be seen as a far more powerful anthropogenic alteration of the environment than fossil fuel use.

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