The devastating blast in central Beirut on Tuesday that killed 135 people and wounded 4,000 has once again turned the spotlight on a city that had in the past survived civil wars, sectarian violence, foreign interventions and terrorist attacks. While there is no dearth of conspiracy theories, the initial assessment of the government is that the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the Beirut port after it was confiscated from a cargo ship six years ago. Officials say the initial explosion ignited a fire, while the second one was more devastating with a mushroom cloud of smoke and fire enveloping the capital’s skyline and its shock waves battering buildings across the city and wounding thousands. Officials have said they would investigate any potential terror angle, while Prime Minister Hassan Diab has promised to bring “all those responsible for this catastrophe” to justice. U.S. President Donald Trump has called it an attack. The magnitude of the blast and the level of the destruction it caused in one of the busiest areas of the capital city suggest that the casualties could be higher. Beirut’s health-care system, struggling to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, is already stretched. Coping with the aftermath of the blast itself would be an uphill task for the country’s beleaguered government.
The blast could not have come at a worse time for Lebanon. In recent years, it has been battling with one crisis or another — be it political instability, a crumbling economy or the pandemic. Massive street protests that broke out in Beirut and elsewhere last year against corruption and the government’s inability to provide even basic services to citizens, paralysed governance further, leading to Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation. The new government’s immediate priority was to fix the economy. But the economy is still in free fall. Prices of essential goods are high, foreign currency is scarce and the GDP is expected to contract 12% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Residents of Beirut are also struggling with long power outages, which are delaying even the rescue efforts after the blast. On the southern border, tensions between Israel and Hezbollah are on the rise, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning of military action. If Lebanon was already on its knees, amidst all these crises, the blast would most likely break its back. It has rendered hundreds of thousands homeless and would deepen the country’s economic woes as one of its main ports has been destroyed. The immediate focus should be on rescuing the wounded and getting the city back on its feet. All stakeholders, from the Sunni parties to Shia Hezbollah, should work together. Other countries in the region as well as international institutions should offer help to Beirut to withstand this moment of catastrophe.