The massive port explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4th which resulted from the unsafe storage of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port was the largest non-nuclear explosion in the 21st century. It killed over two hundred people, injured over six thousand, displaced over 300,000 inhabitants and caused damages estimated to be in the billions of dollars. August 4 instantaneously created new social, economic, and political realities for people in Lebanon. The country had already been in an open revolt against the ruling elite since October 17 for a myriad of chiefly economic and political grievances—many of which were epitomized by the occurrence of the Beirut blast itself and the ruling class’s response (or lack thereof) to the port explosion. The explosion reignited protests, albeit momentarily. A large demonstration on August 8th was met with reportedly the most violent response from security forces since the uprising began. This was followed by the resignation of Hassan Diab’s government.
On October 17, 2020, LCPS launched the first of a series of pieces asking social scientists with leading or active roles in the uprising to take stock of the October revolution and the path forward. We asked all contributors the same questions, which center around the top accomplishments, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the August 4 explosion on mobilization, as well as challenges and opportunities ahead. Their answers to each question are released in a series of articles. In this piece, we present our contributors’ reflections on how the August 4 explosion and its aftermath affected the revolution.
This roundtable series was co-organized with social psychologist and LCPS fellow Dr. Rim Saab and was conducted in October 2020. The first three articles addressed (1) the key accomplishments of the revolution
, (2) why street mobilization witnessed a regression in numbers
even prior to the pandemic, (3) how the COVID-19 pandemic further affected the October revolution
. Note that the interviews were conducted in October 2020. Contributor list (in order of appearance)Lyna Comaty,
development studies specialist and active member of the National BlocCarmen Geha,
political studies and public administration scholar and activistMona Fawaz,
urban studies and planning professor, previously active member of Beirut MadinatiNizar Hassan,
political researcher and commentator, co-host of the Lebanese Politics Podcast and member of LiHaqqiRania Masri,
environmental scientist, activist, and elected representative of Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla
Full biographies appear at the very end. In what ways has the August 4 explosion and its aftermath affected the revolution? Lyna Comaty
We can safely assert that August 4 is a sequel to October 17. It is a concrete proof of the criminality and impunity of the ruling class that the citizens awoke from in October. This crime against the Lebanese population strengthens the legitimacy of the demands of the revolution, and is a testimony to two strong aspects that are now engrained in our collective memory.
First, August 4 is a testimony to the criminality of the political class. Those bad practices we are fighting, namely corruption, nepotism, impunity, and failed governance, now have a date and time: August 4, 6:08 pm. They are now concrete, we can see them, they have violated our homes and killed us in the intimacy of our private space. Our fight against them has become a pilgrimage place, a place where we go to reflect and where some take selfies. August 4 is a landmark in Beirut. That day, their practices made history. And they have made them history.
Secondly, August 4 is a testimony to the entry of the Lebanese citizen in the political game. We might feel that the catastrophe has weakened the population who is already feeling fragile, and has resulted in the largest wave of emigration in our current history, and thereby indirectly affected the ranks and morale of the revolution. However, it has also given a strong credit to the revolution: The Lebanese citizen is undeniably a key player in politics today. Why? Because the citizen is the actor that has replaced the state and has dealt with the aftermath of the explosion. From the moment it happened, citizens from across the country saw it as a civic duty to help on all fronts, in the outright absence of all state institutions in all dimensions of crisis management. Today, the image of the citizen sweeping the streets of Beirut has made history as the concrete illustration of a population dusting off a rotten political class from power. Carmen Geha
I do not know about the revolution but the explosion changed my life forever. It was as if I was raped or beaten up and now I need to live with my perpetrator, see his face every day, and wait for him to apologize and solve the problem. I don’t know about the revolution but I know that none of us will ever be the same after August 4. Rebecca Soltin’s seminal work on “Hope in the Dark” speaks to this moment of grief as we try to find solace together, but her research is almost entirely on one-time disasters like a snow storm, a terror attack, or a hurricane. Our predicament is that of compounded disaster and 30 years of corruption, the epitome of which was the explosion claiming the lives of 200 people, wounding 6,000, and rendering 300,000 homeless. By destroying our homes and burying the city alive, our memories and societal fabric will never be the same. For me the fact that the explosion and its aftermath—like the fire on September 10, 2020—are all man-made ticking time bombs, is enraging. The explosion has radicalized me, for as long as I have a breath left, I will keep revolting against the arrogant psychopaths. Practically, I am now working on a roadmap for recovery of the city as a continuation of my revolt. To unpack clientelism and restore peoples’ sense of agency, we must help each other get back on our feet before we can protest again or dream of voting freely. Mona Fawaz
The explosion brought a renewed energy to the mobilized youth. It first provided additional fuel for their anger but also targeted neighborhoods that many of the protestors identified closely with.
They were hit in the heart. Consequently, they rallied with a repertoire of action that was visibly informed by the experiences of Martyrs’ Square. In both cases, the humanitarian/relief dimension is read as an integral element of the “revolution”. They claimed loudly they were building the alternative that society aspires to see and many of the interventions (e.g., soup kitchens, social solidarity, and psychiatric clinics) were revived. So were the demands for action, the protests, and statements. For a moment, it felt like the uprising will reignite with the same force. There was also a large public protest that was met with a lot of violence. In addition, Drabzeen,
and its national call came to demonstrate a higher willingness of groups to coordinate, develop a unifying message, and we know the groups are trying now to develop a shared program.
Conversely, the explosion comes to demonstrate how strong and resilient the system is and—following the failure of setting in place a government—how desperate the situation has become. After the euphoria of imposing accountability and the heightened rhetoric of the first few days, I think despair is evident. People are taking several accumulated beatings. Nizar Hassan
I think it is important to stop at how we’re using the term revolution here. If by revolution we mean the uprising of October 2019, then I have many reasons to believe that uprising is over; and that what might come next will be a different stage in the revolutionary process, with different manifestations as a social and political phenomenon.
If I understand this question as one about revolutionary momentum, then the August 4 explosion was definitely a major station where the accusations we have been making about the ruling class are evidenced and reflected in the most painful of ways. In that sense, I think it solidified the anger against the ruling class and confirmed to those who have chosen the anti-establishment path that they made the right choice. That said, the manifestations of popular anger following the explosion were shockingly timid. The protest on the weekend that followed was large in scale, but it was more similar to protests few months through the uprising than to the nights of October 17 to October 20. Decentralized actions were virtually absent, and the momentum ended with the end of the day as usual in the iron hands of the regime’s security forces.
And coming back to the issue of hope and despair, the explosion had a nuclear effect of killing the hope left in a lot of people about short-term positive change. Although we understood better how bad our enemy is, we also observed how far it would go without batting an eye, let alone allowing any structural changes. The explosion did offer some hope that the ruling class would receive less support internationally and therefore struggle to survive. However, what we saw with Macron’s initiative and Hariri’s comeback, is that foreign powers are not a safe bet, and that they would pump oxygen into the establishment if that aligns with their political and economic interests. In that sense, the August 4 explosion offered mixed signals, and was not enough to significantly accelerate the revolutionary momentum. Rania Masri
In the first days after the horrific explosion, a common refrain was that the trauma would awaken people’s anger and shake any remaining support they had for this political sectarian system. The explosion might have moved some individuals who were already questioning the system and recognizing the incompetence, impotence, and corruption inherent within the system itself. But one cannot expect the explosion, in and of itself, to be transformative, to move peoples’ political thoughts and actions away from sectarian leadership. The explosion did, however, extend a harsh blow to the population’s morale. Seeing one’s capital destroyed, and those who claim to be responsible merely shrug off their responsibility, one after the other, is akin to a slap to the face, particularly in the absence of a political leadership.
Given that the explosion happened on top of a financial and economic ruin and a bankruptcy of the political chiefs, its impacts become larger. Most evidently, the explosion pushed larger numbers of people to emigrate. The common question now is, "Did you hear who is leaving?”, “Are you planning to leave too?” In a period of two months, this year, 60,000 Lebanese emigrated, and this was before the explosion. This is an increase of 300%. The loss to our society of this mass emigration is greater than the financial bankruptcy.
In a way, it has been a perfect storm of blows: Ongoing bankruptcy, COVID-19 pandemic, and then an explosion that destroyed much of our capital. What is needed, to face all these blows and the ongoing ramifications of bankruptcy, is courage to reject our situation as fated, and the political awareness to constitute a long overdue political front to build a civil state. Biographies Lyna Comaty
Dr. Lyna Comaty is an active member of the National Bloc. During the first six months of the revolution, she was in charge of launching and implementing a citizen engagement platform for the party. She holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, and is author of “Post-Conflict Transition in Lebanon: The Disappeared of the Civil War” published with Routledge in 2019. Lyna lectures at the university level and regularly consults with local and international organizations. She is a founding member of the NGO Act for the Disappeared. Carmen Geha
Dr. Carmen Geha is an Associate Professor of Public Administration, Leadership, and Organizational Development at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Her research expertise is in political institutions, power-sharing, women’s representation, civil society, and protest movements. She is also a Co-Founder and Research Associate at the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership (CIBL) for Women, a trans-disciplinary regional force for advancing inclusive employer policies across the Arab MENA region. Carmen was Founding Director for “Education for Leadership in Crisis” scholarship program for Afghan women at AUB. Carmen is an activist working toward gender-equality, refugee protection, and freedom of expression. During the revolution, she was a protestor and took part in mobilizing, analyzing, and strategizing with several movements and political groups. Mona Fawaz
Dr. Mona Fawaz is a Professor of Urban Studies and Planning and a Lead Researcher at the Beirut Urban Lab, both at the American University of Beirut. Between October and December 2019, she participated daily in the uprising by giving and hosting teach-ins, learning by listening and exchanging with many people, organizing and participating in protests, conceiving/messaging informational content, and trying to coordinate and bring together movements to align positions and help build a coalition. She did so as a member of Beirut Madinati (she resigned since then) as well as a researcher investigating the incestuous intersections between real estate and finance and their negative impacts on people's lives. Nizar Hassan
Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese researcher, political organizer, and commentator. He co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast
, and has published articles and opinion pieces on Lebanon with several Arab news outlets. He is a member of the progressive grassroots political organization LiHaqqi
, where he has served on the Public Affairs Committee. Nizar conducts socio-economic research with the Arab NGO Network for Development, and has previously worked as a Policy Researcher at LCPS. He holds a B.A. in Political Studies and a Diploma in Media Communications from the American University of Beirut, and a Master's degree in Labor, Social Movements and Development from SOAS in London; where he wrote his dissertation
on the 2015 protest movement in Lebanon. Rania Masri
As an elected representative of the political movement (Citizens in a State), Dr. Masri was organizing the movement’s presence and open political discussions in their tent in Al-Azarieh from the start of the October revolution. Since the closure of the tents, she has been meeting and coordinating various activities with other organized political groups in the revolution, as well as writing articles, and building the movement’s internal capacity. Rim Saab
Rim Saab is an Assistant Professor in Social Psychology at the American University of Beirut. Her research expertise is in intergroup relations and political attitudes, with a particular focus on the social psychological factors that push people to engage in collective political action. Over the course of the revolution, she was a protester, an active member of the Association of Independent University Professors and a co-founder of a public teach-in initiative called Bedna Nthour Bedna Na3ref. 
Marten Boeklo’s thesis links what he calls the “civil society groups,” meaning young people trained by NGOs within the liberal rhetoric that influenced a discourse of secularism, to Hamra and Gemmayzeh. Drabzeen
is a broad gathering of active political and civil society groups aiming to protect the goals of the revolution.