The Current

Beirut explosion could lead to 'real aftershock' of political change: Rami Khouri

Journalist Rami Khouri says the explosion in Beirut is the latest "body blow" to the Lebanese, after successive crises have hit their country.

Eyewitness describes 'rubble and blood' of explosion that has killed at least 135

A picture shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on Tuesday. The explosion rattled entire buildings, broke glass and was felt in several parts of the city. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)
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Journalist Rami Khouri says the Beirut explosion that killed at least 135 and injured thousands is the latest "body blow" to the Lebanese after decades of crisis, but it could prompt political change.

"Whether it's no garbage collection, no electricity, salty water, no jobs, poor education, closed banks, inflation, no money, poverty rising — all of these have been happening in succession and simultaneously in the last year," said Khouri, a professor of journalism and director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut. 

He said that the Lebanese blame these problems, including Tuesday's explosion, on successive "incompetent, uncaring" governments, and the "oligarchic sectarian system of rule in which 15 or 20 men essentially rule the country, and under the facade of a democratic, participatory parliamentary system." 

"In the coming months, you're going to see a real ratcheting up of political pressure both from within Lebanon and externally to finally get rid of this ruling oligarchic, sectarian, corrupt, uncaring, inefficient political elite," he told The Current's guest host Mark Kelley.

"That's the real aftershock of this explosion." 

A powerful explosion in Beirut's port area has killed dozens, injured thousands and caused widespread destruction. The cause seems to be highly explosive material that was stored for years. The result is more misery for a country already mired in economic crisis and political unrest. 2:26

The crisis-hit country has seen mass anti-government protests since October over corruption among the political elite class. Poverty and food shortages have been driven by hyperinflation, as well as a currency that has lost almost 80 per cent of its value against the U.S. dollar since the demonstrations began.

Tuesday's enormous blast detonated in Beirut's port, but was felt across the city as it levelled nearby buildings and shattered windows for kilometres around. The Lebanese government declared a state of emergency Wednesday, and placed port officials under house arrest amid speculation the explosion was caused by negligence.

Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi said the cause appeared to be 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate — a common ingredient in fertilizer that can also be highly explosive — that had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014. 

Journalist George Eid was on the scene shortly after the explosion.

"It was a war scene. People were bleeding, cars were flipped over," said Eid, the senior correspondent at MTV Lebanon News. 

"People who were moving in their cars, the intensity of the blast shattered the windows and the glass landed in their faces, so I saw bloody faces, unrecognizable faces," he told Kelley.

"Walls were torn apart, windows flew over, balconies fell down, and there was just rubble and blood."

A wedding photographer captured the explosion's impact while recording a bridal video. The bride is seen being led to safety. 0:29

Eid wants answers about how the explosion happened.

"This is something that someone should be accountable for," he said.

'Real threat' to Lebanon

Khouri said that culpability for the explosion lies not just with one individual, but with a whole system.

"It's become clear that the real threat to Lebanon is its governance system," he said.

"It's a system of governance that has bankrupted the country, dehumanized the people, shattered the economy, killed the hopes of young people — it's a whole system of governance that is responsible."

Lebanon was in a financial crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but fresh lockdowns are pushing the country closer to economic collapse. 5:02

He said that in the weeks and months ahead, international pressure for reform would play a role, but the push for change would fall to the Lebanese people.

He argued that while the system is not democratic, it does recognize personal freedom, which gives the Lebanese people the opportunity to pursue and develop "their full capacities and expertise in whatever the field it may be."

"That's the strength of Lebanon," he told Kelley.

"There is a dynamism, a humanity, a creativity, a splendour, a joy to the Lebanese human spirit that is distinct from all the Arab countries," he said.

"This explosion is going to push them now to find the way to translate that massive sense of communal hope and solidarity … into an actual functioning political transition."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Ben Jamieson, Lindsay Rempel and Sarah Peterson.

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