Editor’s Note: Rima Majed is an assistant professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut. The views expressed in this opinion are her own. View more opinion here.
I was meeting my friends at a sidewalk café in the Hamra district for a coffee when the earth shook under our feet. Someone yelled, “Earthquake!” But my friend, who’d lived through the 15-year Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, screamed, “It’s an explosion!”
Before I could even reply or acknowledge what had happened, there was a second explosion, even bigger than the first. As buildings crumbled and glass rained down upon us, I was paralyzed by fear.
When the dust began to settle, all I could see was devastation – bloodied people, a café turned to ash, rubble where an entire street once stood. The sirens that followed were deafening.
Lebanon has been plagued by political corruption and crony capitalism for decades. And the pandemic and economic collapse only added to the already dire state of Lebanon. With growing poverty rates, inadequate basic medical care and broken infrastructure, we thought that we had already hit rock bottom and that nothing worse was possible anymore.
But then the explosion happened on Aug. 4, and we descended further into hell – a hell that only our anger may save us from.
Though I was fortunate to escape the explosions without many cuts or bruises, one of my friends at the café was not so lucky. Broken glass fell on her, opening a wound in her leg that was bleeding heavily and required urgent stitching.
When we realized what had happened, we ran to several nearby hospitals, hoping the doctors at one them could treat her wounds. But when we arrived at each one, we were told they were either at capacity or had been too badly damaged to take in new patients.
We stopped the first taxi we could find, asking the driver to take us across the city – hoping that we might find a hospital that could treat our friend further away from the explosion. But as we drove around in the taxi, it became clear the explosion had not damaged our neighborhood only – it had rocked much of the city, leaving few hospitals able to help.
With the traffic growing worse by the minute, we could not reach a hospital and ended up going to a relative of my injured friend who lived closer by and was a medical doctor. By the time we arrived, his home had already been converted into a field hospital. Injured neighbors were streaming in, covered in blood, and begging for help.
They, too, could not get hospital care and needed urgent help. Without anesthesia and with few medical supplies available at home, he was forced to stitch wounds from his living room couch.
While the investigation into the cause of the explosions is still ongoing, one thing is clear: Our government and the whole ruling political class in Lebanon are directly responsible. By allowing 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate to be stored in the Beirut port for six years, it committed its biggest and most unforgivable crime to date. Now, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab has announced the resignation of his government, less than a week after the explosion.
It wasn’t the first transgression of the Lebanese ruling class against its people. Since October 2019, the financial crisis started to deepen with the banks imposing an illegal and unofficial capital control on most depositors while the oligarchs had been smuggling money – our money – abroad.
The economic collapse was coupled with a deterioration of the already weak infrastructure in the country: power blackouts, garbage piling up in the streets, water shortages, and fear of fuel and wheat shortages.
Almost half of the Lebanese population fell under the poverty line and unemployment rates increased exponentially. In addition, the state had used unjustifiable violence against protesters and cracked down on journalists and activists critical of the authorities.
But we were not entirely without recourse against the government. Though months of protests initially failed to yield significant political reform, we had a far more powerful weapon – our anger.
On Saturday, after four days of managing our losses collectively and supporting each other in the total absence of the state, a day of rage was announced in Beirut. Prompted by anger, thousands of protesters returned to the devastated Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut.
Unlike the hopeful protests of October 2019, this time protesters were looking for revenge. Violence quickly escalated with teargas and rubber bullets being fired at protesters who were trying to reach the heavily protected house of parliament.
The square transformed into a war zone with ambulances rushing in to carry out the tens of injured. Two of my friends got injured by rubber bullets: one in the shoulder, and another in the eye. As with previous crackdowns, rubber bullets targeting protesters’ eyes seem to be a carefully crafted tactic.
Today, the political class has lost its credibility, even amongst many of its supporters. The anger needs to be channeled beyond its expression in protests and street mobilizations. And now with the resignation of the government, there is a political opportunity to be grasped.
The opposition needs to rise to this moment politically and lead the transition that will not only topple the rulers, but that will also prosecute them. Without a leadership that can translate the anger in the streets into a political process, this will be, yet again, another lost opportunity.
The international community also has a role to play in our recovery, and it can start by no longer recognizing corrupt and heartless leaders. It can isolate them by refusing to meet with them and refusing to channel any aid to Lebanon through them. Until there is a new, trustworthy government in place, this is imperative. Every penny that goes through the Lebanese system will help entrench them and will make our struggle against them more difficult.
The international community also needs to immediately freeze all the accounts (and properties) of the Lebanese oligarchs – politicians and bankers – abroad. This is the wealth of the Lebanese people, and investigations are needed to return the stolen money.
Lebanese politicians and their parties should be prosecuted and banned from participating in political life. Only when our leaders have been removed from office and held responsible for their years of malfeasance can we begin to restore justice and rebuild our democracy and the many institutions that are required to ensure its survival.
A so-called “national unity” government that would bring them back to power with international support will be another blow to the Lebanese people and their right for a decent life.
While the future remains uncertain, a catastrophe of the magnitude of the Beirut explosion should not pass without a major political transformation in the country. This is not only for the people of Lebanon, but for the belief that the word “justice” can still have a meaning on our planet.