Are you perchance like me in that you can pretty much recall where you were and what you were doing almost to the last detail when momentous events that impressed your life in some way took place across the world?
I can for instance say exactly where I was and what I was doing when both the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and later the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were assassinated in 1981 and 1995 respectively. I can also say with even fresher clarity what I was doing when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, or when the Twin Towers were destroyed in Lower Manhattan in 2001. Or else when the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was blown up in his car in Beirut in 2005.
The recent explosion in Beirut is one of those events that will be indelibly etched on my mind. Simply put, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in a hangar in the deep-water port of Beirut exploded somehow and devastated whole neighbourhoods of the capital. The grain silos along the port that provided the wheat supply for Lebanon were disembowelled, the mills that made the flour for bread were also destroyed and a main waterway that secured the import of 80 per cent of food and medicine for the country has now become inoperable.
I watched a video showing a priest who was streaming a Mass in a church in the city suddenly finding himself amid flying debris as a consequence of the impact of the explosion. Moreover, so serious was the structural damage to a couple of the major hospitals and their A&E departments in the capital that the patients had to be evacuated in case the buildings collapsed on them or the oxygen tanks caught fire.
This happened to Lebanon only few days ago: a small country of some 4 million inhabitants housing 1 million refugees from the war in neighbouring Syria, dealing with coronavirus cases across the whole country, and experiencing an economy in alarming freefall. Add to all this the fact that the whole political establishment in the country is discredited by its ineptitude and corruption.
The future of Beirut
What happens in this country with its 18 different communities and an increasingly dysfunctional system of governance that has become a façade for patronage and corruption? Will the Lebanese manage to get up and plaster their country together again? Who will pay for the repairs when 50 per cent of the citizens are below the threshold of poverty and the state institutions themselves are bankrupt?
Lebanon today consists of roughly 30 per cent Christians of different denominations and 70 per cent Muslims - largely Sunni, Shia and Druze. There are also other smaller communities such as Armenians or Chaldeans. Will the politicians, alongside their community leaders, manage to assist their constituencies that have been left homeless, jobless, defenceless and in many cases also painfully hopeless?
These are existential questions for a people who have suffered so much pain since the 1970’s with a 15-year civil war, followed by many proxy wars that have sapped the energy of an enterprising and resilient people.
Is it any wonder that the country has been witnessing a revolution since October 2019 - an Arab Spring with a Lebanese flavour - led by the young men and women of different creeds and backgrounds who aspire to get rid of politicians leeching off the goodness of the country? How does one salvage Lebanon and get it back on its feet?
As happens often, there has been a litany of messages of support for this country from leaders across the world. Only last Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and suggested that a plan might well be in the making. But how tangible and practical are such expressions of good will?
I am fond of Lebanon, and not only because of the vibrancy of its people or the scenic beauty in many of its regions. It is also because Lebanon is truly a Levantine petri dish for a culture that has in the past defended its fundamental freedoms - such as those of expression, worship or movement - that we in Europe had taken for granted since World War II.
I think that the European Union with its 27 member-states, as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council with its six constituent members, should step in alongside perhaps other individual countries like our own United Kingdom in order to help put the country together. The initial and urgent needs are clearly humanitarian in order to help patch the wounds of the country. But a more long-term mechanism should be found to get the expertise, as well as financial assistance, directly to the needy Lebanese men and women. I am unsure if this will work since Lebanon is in a political vacuum nowadays, but could it be that this huge disaster will be the wakeup call that finally leads to vital structural reforms?
This in my opinion is the critical issue now in Lebanon - how to transition from the humanitarian catastrophe of the explosion to a reconfiguration of the political system in the country. As the journalist Rami Khouri reminded his readers only a couple of days ago, this has been happening across many Arab countries as its citizens have been marching in the streets in protest, largely against the corruption and despotism of their governments over the last three decades. Indeed, it is unfortunate that a region so rich in human resources continues to be ruled by autocratic, authoritarian and increasingly militarised regimes and whose policies have led to roughly 75 per cent of all Arabs - whether Muslim or Christian - being poor or vulnerable. I wonder today whether the explosion that destroyed many districts of Beirut might also help reform this ageing and heartless political system.
Christians in Lebanon
The Maronite-rite Catholic patriarch (church leader) of Lebanon suggested that one way of providing an egress from this stalemate in Lebanon is for the country to adopt a neutral stance from all conflicts surrounding it. Lebanon should be first and foremost for the Lebanese, not for Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia or other countries and militias. This neutrality might help safeguard the country from an inevitable meltdown. In fact, so huge is the anger of ordinary Lebanese citizens against their rulers and so biting their frustration that a petition is making the rounds in Lebanon calling for France to reassume its former colonial mandate of the country.
Lebanon is steeped in mismanagement, nepotism and corruption. It is in paralysis. But the Lebanon that I have slowly explored and discovered over the years is also a country of entrepreneurs, intellectuals and life-loving men and women who have fought hard to keep some of their freedoms alive. Yet the future is uncertain. So no wonder I remember exactly what I was doing when I got the call alerting me to the explosion. And what was I doing exactly? I was on the sofa in my study reading Christopher Moore’s hilarious novel Lamb about Jesus and his best friend Biff during their teenage years as our future Lord and Saviour learnt how to be a messiah.
Perhaps Lebanon should learn something much humbler and easier than adopting messianic pretensions: it should simply learn how to become accountable to its own citizens. Or else, I fear that the explosion which ripped through the port on the 4th of August will not be its last tale of woe.
Dr Harry Hagopian is an Armenian Christian who hails originally from Jordan. He is an international lawyer who has contributed to the debate on the future of the Holy Land and participated in many of the political and religious meetings in Jerusalem and abroad relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has written major treatises on the issue of recognition of the Armenian Genocide, as well as on women’s rights in Islam and on blasphemy / apostasy legal cases under Common Law principles. He has also published two books, The Armenian Church in the Holy Land (2017) and Keeping Faith with Hope: The Challenge of Israel-Palestine (2019). For more information visit epektasis.net
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