- Massive foreign assistance is on its way to the country—but the government has forfeited any right to it.
There is a saying in Lebanon that the country functions better without a government than with one. That has never been truer than now.
Minutes after the explosion ripped through Beirut on Aug. 4, Red Cross medics appeared on the street with first aid kits, and volunteers managed traffic. Young men and women carrying water bottles went door to door asking if anyone needed help. Lebanon’s conflict-ridden past, riddled with wars and invasions, economic collapse, and rampant corruption, has steadily trained citizens to spring into action when confronted with an emergency. Within a week of the explosion that wreaked havoc in the capital, they cleaned the city’s roads, which had been made impassable with broken glass and debris.
Of course, in any other country, the army and disaster management officials would have also rushed to the spot of the explosion; politicians would have lined up to offer condolences and support. But here the state was conspicuously absent. Instead, President Michel Aoun imposed a state of emergency and granted the army expansive powers to curb freedom of movement, press, and assembly to boot out angry protesters from the streets. The Lebanese people have been both first responders and victims of their government’s response.
Mounds of shattered glass, wood, and entangled metal, mixed with household items such as half-torn books, contorted utensils, and photographs, now fill the sidewalks of the neighborhoods that were, before the blast, the heart of the city. The volunteers who wielded brooms and shovels through the Christian-dominated neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael hailed from across the country’s religious sects. Two groups of scouts, one from the Sunni-dominated northern city of Tripoli wearing maroon vests, and one from the Shiite south in green, were busy sweeping damaged houses. (The state was nowhere in sight: Police officers merely guarded the entry to the road and roped off a building that was in danger of collapse.)