The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As Beirut mourns, our failed leadership looks for someone to punish. I say they must all go.

Author Rabih Alameddine says the Beirut blast is the latest reminder that Lebanon's neglectful governments have, for years, not cared about the people. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Lorenzo Tugnoli/The Washington Post)

Rabih Alameddine is an author.

I was talking to my mother when I heard the explosion. The shaking happened first, followed by the blast. We couldn’t tell what it was, but it felt worse than any car bomb, any missile, anything that occurred during the 15-year civil war. Practically every window in the city was blown out, doors blown off, cars crushed. The Lebanese did not need to be told that there would be deaths and thousands of injuries.

It took seconds for rumors to begin circulating. Twitter was aflame. It was a fireworks depot, an Israeli missile, an explosion of a Hezbollah weapons depot, a nuclear bomb. The worst opinions would be spouted by so-called Middle East experts, of course. “We’ve known for years that Hezbollah stores advanced weaponry inside of the city on top of major population centers.” “Blast in Beirut might also be result of what is described as a Hezbollah work accident. The French might say hoisted on their own petard.”

I can’t speak for all Lebanese, but I can probably say that a lot of us would like to hoist these armchair experts on something.

As of this writing, more than 100 people are dead and at least 4,000 injured. The images of destruction are horrifying.

To say that this could not have happened at a worse time for Lebanon would be an understatement. The economy had tanked, the Lebanese pound had lost more than 60 percent of its value in just the past month, and banks were allowing only minimal withdrawals. Most of the citizens are starving. Demonstrations have been rocking the streets since last October. The government and its cronies have sent the army, the police and various militias to beat up demonstrators. Lebanon was teetering, and then we got the novel coronavirus.

And now this.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab linked the explosions to 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse in Beirut’s port area since 2014. He promised to bring justice. He said he would make sure that whoever was responsible for the chemicals being left at the port and whoever caused the accident would be punished — the harshest sentences to be meted out.

But I kept thinking: Why? As a society, we keep looking to punish people, calling it justice. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t punish those responsible for the devastation. They can go to hell, and if that’s not available, then prison. But that result isn’t justice. It’s barely a palliative.

When the first rumors about the blast burst out, I didn’t dismiss any of them. An Israeli missile? Sure. A weapons depot accident? I could see that. A Hezbollah car bomb? It could happen. It had happened. A nuclear bomb? Of course. We’re talking Beirut here, where anything can happen and everything has.

As far as we know, it turned out to be something much more sinister. An accident because no one in government, no one with any responsibility for the care and well-being of Lebanon and its people, cares. They never have. I could list all the disasters that have befallen the country in recent years, but that would take an encyclopedic tome.

People in government have brazenly stolen millions. The latest banking collapse had many reasons, but primarily it happened because we had a unified government that decided it was time to empty out the national bank and central reserves. Most parts of Lebanon have been getting no more than two or three hours of electricity a day because certain members of parliament have companies making millions selling and maintaining generators. Because of the lack of maintenance of the sewage system, the Lebanese are swimming in crap, literally. I could go on.

The lack of concern of Lebanese governments throughout the years, the corruption and narcissistic incompetence are almost Trumpian.

I used to think that the reason was leftover from colonial times. Going back in time, the Arab invaders, the Ottomans, the French, they never cared about the country or its people. Like merger and acquisition firms, they wanted to squeeze whatever profit they could get. The locals who replaced them simply followed the same model.

But I don’t think so. Most governments are corrupt, and they don’t use colonialism as an excuse.

And then I realized, I don’t care to know why. I really don’t.

It’s likely this disaster didn’t happen because just one person was neglectful or was willfully criminal. Did the director of customs get bribed, the port manager? I don’t care right now. It’s not individuals or a certain group. It’s not bad apples, it’s the whole orchard, all the orchards. It’s a systemic failure of governance. For years, every faction in the country blamed the other for any disaster. We had a civil war that ended only when all the sides figured they could steal a lot more money if they cooperated. There were always scapegoats, and I’m sure that some will be offered this time as well. But enough, enough!

This government must go. All of them. The government, the president, the prime minister, Hezbollah, the Hariris, the Lebanese forces, the Aouns, the Jumblatts, the Berris, the Gemayels, every one of them. Enough. Get out.

We need to plant anew.

Read more:

Kareem Chehayeb: Lebanon’s elites could save themselves — or save the country

Dima Sadek: At last, Lebanon is rising up against the sectarian system that keeps us divided

Kareem Chehayeb: Lebanon’s riots come as no surprise — even during a pandemic

David Ignatius: Syria is lost. Let’s save Lebanon.