North Africa, West Asia

In the absence of the state, people are leading Beirut’s recovery

A month after the Beirut blast, a people-centred recovery is key to peaceful change.

Aseel Naamani Ruth Simpson
11 September 2020
People clean shattered glass in Beirut, Lebanon. 13 Aug 2020
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Picture by Bilal Jawich/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

Recent events in Lebanon tell a story of interwoven crises, culminating in the explosion in Beirut on 4 August. To overcome the crisis in the long-term, recovery efforts must be participatory and take a bottom-up approach, based on communities’ needs, whilst protecting shared spaces and cultural heritage.

The explosion in Beirut’s seaport that shook the entire capital last month was a more pronounced form of institutional negligence than ever before. The explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored in the middle of a densely populated area, killed over 190 people and left over 6,000 wounded and many thousands more with the trauma of losing loved ones, livelihoods, and homes. Approximately 40,000 buildings and around half of Beirut’s establishments were damaged, including four major hospitals and 178 schools.

Shockwaves through a country already in turmoil

As people take stock of the loss and damage, anger keeps mounting against the political class that ruled the country since the end of its civil war in 1990 and which is blamed by many for corruption and negligence that led to this massive explosion. Before the explosion, trust in the political class and state institutions was already in decline, worsened by economic crisis and political impasse. The explosion, lack of accountability and increasing violence against protesters by state security forces, has only increased popular frustration.

The explosion risks increasing social tensions further. After the start of the wave of protests in October 2019, relations between Lebanese of different backgrounds deteriorated significantly and reached their lowest point in July, with only 18% of the population seeing them as positive. Relations between the Lebanese and Syrian refugees also saw a decline.

In the aftermath of the explosion, fault lines between Lebanese and Syrian refugees and amongst Lebanese threaten to grow in the midst of divisive narratives, increasing fears of instability, crime, and growing inequality.

Trauma threatens individuals’ ability to heal, connect and engage in community life

The explosion has traumatised thousands. For children and young people it threatened a sense of safety in their own homes, while for older generations it brought back trauma from the civil war and previous episodes of violence. Trauma threatens individuals’ ability to heal, connect and engage in community life and limits their ability to form positive social ties, wider recovery efforts and ultimately social stability. The city’s cultural and architectural heritage was also damaged, including shared cultural and public spaces.

The blast hit the country’s economic centre with an estimated 7 billion USD in loss and damages to housing, cultural, and transport sectors and decimated the port, including grain silos, threatening food security and adding strain to at least 55% of the population who are suffering poverty.

From emergency response to people-centered recovery

Lebanese and non-Lebanese people took their own initiative and acted quickly in support of the people of Beirut. Immediately following the blast, in the absence of a government-coordinated relief plan and in solidarity with the victims and survivors, thousands of volunteers, often young people, and civil society organisations mobilised to support relief efforts, clean-up, donate blood, and offer shelter, food, and care packages.

But can solidarity initiatives pave the way for positive change? These locally-grown initiatives, bringing people together from across divides in a common purpose, have the potential to lay the foundations for long-term peace if this solidarity and these networks can be supported and sustained beyond the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

In the weeks that followed, national and international NGOs led relief efforts, amid an absence of national government oversight. Over the past month, concerns have been raised over authorities’ management of the response. The French-led international donor conference on 9 August mobilised around 300 million USD to fund relief efforts, going directly to NGOs through UN agencies amid a popular movement to block channeling funds to government institutions because of lost trust. Lack of confidence in government efforts is only increased by a lack of transparency in contracting for the removal of debris from blast sites.

In response, there are growing calls for people-centered and participatory recovery efforts, which take a bottom-up approach, developed based on communities’ needs, whilst protecting shared spaces and cultural heritage. This offers an opportunity for looking more holistically at recovery, rather than simply focusing on short-term reconstruction, which whilst essential, can run the risk of being piecemeal or replicating inequalities and creating problems in the longer-term.

Prospects for cooperative action and peacebuilding

Despite the growing consciousness and mobilization for reform, protest groups are fragmented and need to coordinate and articulate political and economic alternatives. To do that, activist groups can capitalize on opportunities to build bridges and open dialogue spaces amongst each other and with establishment supporter groups to increase popular support for the movement.

The political economy upon which the political elite has survived on for over thirty years is in desperate need of reform

While a general exhaustion resulting from the economic crisis and COVID-19 pressures on livelihoods and restrictions may have caused the protests to fade, the magnitude of destruction of the Beirut blast brought people back to the streets on 8 August. The rapid action of security institutions to repress the protest at its onset and the announcement of a ‘state of emergency’, whereby the LAF’s jurisdiction is expanded to include administrative control of the capital, indicates the government’s decision to securitise its responses to the people’s demands of justice and reform, and diffuse protests.

The coming weeks are critical as the newly appointed prime minister will be forming a government. The Beirut blast and the crises since October 2019, have shaken up the status quo, and the realization is dawning that the political economy upon which the political elite has survived on for over thirty years is in desperate need of reform. It is likely that political elites may not be ready or willing to make way for, or be part of these changes, with the political class succeeding to renegotiate conditions that allow it to reproduce itself with another national unity government that would not be able to respond to the demands of the protesters for justice and reform.

However, the presence of social movements, the growing public consciousness and clamor for change, means that these new movements could be part of the renegotiation process and push for a more participatory political process.

In the short to medium term, this means activist groups creating their own spaces for dialogue and networking that can push for a people-centred recovery, which takes into account space, identity and heritage, and that can bridge inter-group divides, and organise citizen action for government accountability.

In the longer term, more inclusive and participatory political engagement will help rebuild citizen-state trust and strengthen the democratic process.

This blog was written with Ilina Slavova, Senior Peacebuilding Advisor, Lebanon.

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