Podcast Editor Samuel Pennifold on the devastating explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, and the implications of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to the city.
Whilst I achieved only a B in A-Level chemistry, I am very much aware that leaving a huge pile of ammonium nitrate sitting in a silo for seven years is not a good idea. This single, extremely unfortunate event symbolises years of failings and corruption in the leadership of Lebanon.
At the start of the year, Lebanon had the third-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, a 25% unemployment rate, and nearly a third of the population living below the poverty line. The massive explosion at the Port of Beruit has now brought the government to its knees, with rising protests across the country calling for revolution.
During his visit to the city yesterday, French President Emmanuel Macron seemed to suggest that this was only the beginning, saying: “Without reforms, Lebanon will continue to suffer”.
Macron also said that he does not “endorse” the sitting regime by visiting Beruit. Meanwhile, protests continue and posts across social media encourage people to donate directly to charities, due to fear that donations won’t make it past the pockets of corrupt government officials. A petition demanding the return of French mandate to Lebanon garnered over 50,000 signatures in 24 hours. The petition’s tagline reads: “Lebanon’s officials have clearly shown a total inability to secure and manage the country. With a failing system, corruption, terrorism and militia the country just reached its last breath.”
So, is Lebanon fit to run its own affairs?
The world of Twitter was quick in its response to label Macron’s comments a coup d’état in jest – though there is a more serious issue behind this joke of imperialism vs intervention. Lebanon and France have a complicated relationship dating back to the end of the First World War. The Interwar Period and the Second World War saw various levels of freedom for Lebanon and various iterations of what “Lebanon” was under the administration of French officials. Lebanon became independent in 1943.
So is it right for the former “colonial master” to continue to engage with the “ruled” even if said engagement is “humanitarian intervention”? France has the experience and expertise to organise international relief efforts in Lebanon as promised, but there is a dark danger to slipping back into an all-too-easy form of modern imperialism. And Macron is hardly scrambling to save himself from that cliff.
When intervention occurs between former colonial “masters” and the states they once had control over, there can be a blur, certainly in the public’s minds, between intervention and imperialism. This tragic accident brought about through utter incompetence – there is no simpler way to describe it – may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for this government of Lebanon. What comes next might have some serious geopolitical impacts.
This all comes as Macron has been looking to reposition France over Germany as the dominant power on the European stage and in NATO – at the same time as Macron’s domestic power trembles in the wake of Covid-19. It could provide a much needed “win” for the leader to regain any level of control or influence in Lebanon; an idea which, according to media outlet France 24, isn’t all that unpopular in Lebanon.
It could also prove something of a precedent for British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab to pay attention to as China continues to wear away the two-system policy between mainland China and Hong Kong.
After all, more has been done for far less. The Lebanon situation is one that we should watch closely – and especially how Macron prowls around the disaster.
On an individual scale, though, I implore all those who can to give to relief funds for Beruit and keep the dead, injured, homeless, and all others affected in your thoughts.