Lebanon’s Mushroom Cloud is a Warning to America, but Pro-Democracy Movements Could Save Us

When I started teaching history and civics in Lebanon during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, I hoped a new generation would be able to overcome sectarianism and clientelism in order to build a more inclusive, effective democracy. Back then, the United States was seen as an example to the world. But in recent years, America has become more sectarian in its own ways, with increasing levels of corruption, incompetence, and conspiracies that remind me of Lebanon. The mushroom cloud in Beirut on August 4 was a visible example of how failed governance is endangering civilians, but it was just a symptom of much deeper, and deadlier, problems in both countries that can only be solved by major democratic reforms.

Beirut port: the site of the explosion’s epicenter, via Carmen Geha on Twitter.

After a few days of mourning and cleaning rubble, yesterday the uprising against Lebanon’s rigged political system that began in October has returned to the streets of Beirut in full force, overflowing with anger. For the first time, unarmed revolutionaries breached the parliamentary square and took control of government buildings, as they were beaten back by batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition from security forces and partisan thugs.

I wrote in December about how young Lebanese were leading a historic cross-sectarian movement. When America’s #BlackLivesMatter protests began in May, they modified their own hashtag from “Lebanon rises” to “America rises” (أميركا_تنتفض#), which went viral in solidarity. Lebanese recognized the common cause of overcoming sectarianism/racism, state violence, and corruption, and they quickly shared advice and assembled a guide for how to protest safely and effectively. The images of security forces attacking unarmed protesters and journalists in Minneapolis, D.C., Portland, and other cities were reminiscent of Beirut.

Pro-democracy movements in Lebanon, the United States, and elsewhere depend on each other to support international transparency and accountability because so many recent challenges — including economic crashes and inequities, the COVID-19 pandemic, and environmental destruction — were not accidents; they were caused by criminal neglect. Our states are failing, and politicians are resorting to authoritarian tactics in attempt to suppress citizens they’ve failed to protect. If we understand how the Beirut blast was just one symptom of a corrupt system, we can all work toward democratic reforms.

The Beirut Explosion

We may never know how the fire started (whether from welding sparks or from a planned attack), but the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port were not there by chance. Since 2014, there had been numerous documented warnings to public officials that went ignored. With such a large stockpile of explosives sitting unsecured in the city, it was only a matter of time before the bomb was triggered.

While Lebanese citizens rallied to help each other in the absence of a government response, Lebanon’s political elites raced to avoid accountability. President Michel Aoun rejected calls for an independent international investigation. Aoun’s son-in-law and his party’s current leader, MP Gebran Bassil, deflected questions about why explosive materials were in the port for so long, claiming “the question now is how it was ignited.” Their political ally Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, lashed out against accusations that his party was complicit, threatening “civil war” and denying knowledge about the ammonium nitrate even though Hezbollah is known to exert control over Beirut’s port. A video of Nasrallah resurfaced from 2016 in which he muses about hitting ammonium warehouses in Haifa’s port with missiles to achieve the same effect as a nuclear bomb.

These men co-lead Lebanon’s ruling coalition, which has long resisted reforms that would unlock international aid to save their failing economy. Lebanon’s ruling parties perfected the art of the steal used by President Trump and Republicans: Exploit government power to help wealthy special interests while refusing to invest in public services, and respond to critics of corruption by deflecting blame toward political opponents, attacking the media, and scapegoating minority groups, foreigners, and low-income workers.

The American Explosion

Like Lebanon, the U.S. is being held hostage by a kleptocracy indifferent to the suffering of citizens. The intentional neglect of public health has led to a less visible but far deadlier explosion. On the same day the Beirut blast killed approximately 160 people, America’s COVID death toll reached around 160,000 (40,000 times the number of Americans killed in Benghazi and 53 times the number killed on 9/11). No other developed country has seen the virus spread so rampantly, and U.S. cases have climbed as other countries have bent the curve. Although the spread of the virus started as an accident, President Trump and most Republican politicians failed to take the threat seriously for months and refused to mobilize resources to contain it, as other countries succeeded in doing. Before Trump took office, the outgoing Obama-Biden administration even trained their incoming counterparts about how to respond to a pandemic and left them a playbook, but Trump’s NSC dismantled the team responsible for implementing it.

We now know Trump’s refusal to stop the pandemic was a conscious political decision. By early April, his son-in-law Jared Kushner developed a plan with his elite friends for the federal government to surge testing and tracing. The strategy was similar to what other countries were already doing and contained elements of the plans produced by Elizabeth Warren in January and by Joe Biden in March. But the White House chose not to enact the strategy based on the belief that “because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically.” Instead, Trump tried to blame Democratic governors and spread the virus further by encouraging armed militants to “liberate” states from social distancing. Republicans didn’t care about the loss of life as long as it was disproportionately affecting frontline workers and people of color. Not only did Trump fail to enact a national plan, but he played favorites by diverting PPE away from governors who criticized him and toward states with Republican allies, and he admitted he ordered testing to be slowed down.

Even when Congress passed legislation in response to the pandemic, Republicans prioritized corporate welfare while cutting Democrats’ investments in public health and economic relief for small businesses and average citizens. The extent of corruption from the Republicans’ corporate slush fund will probably remain unknown until after the election, but we do know some politicians’ wealthy friends and family members received bailouts, including the Kushners. Meanwhile, Republicans’ obsession with reopening workplaces and schools failed to consider the economic damage caused by allowing the virus spread. Some elected Republicans have even explicitly said that older and vulnerable populations should sacrifice themselves for the economy. So much for the “pro-life” party. It’s no accident the stock market has continued to boost investor portfolios even while COVID cases have surged. Wealthy executives reap profits from afar while Americans on the frontlines literally work themselves to death.

The Path toward Democratic Accountability

Systemic change in Lebanon will require enacting the types of broadly-supported reforms advocated by the protest movement: Remove the sectarian quotas that have limited political competition to a handful of patriarchs, replace those politicians with technocrats who could investigate and recover stolen funds, and hold new elections with the country as a single electoral district (without gerrymandering). As I’ve previously suggested, after removing sectarian quotas, the Lebanese could follow the example of other Arab countries by establishing quotas for women and youth in order to help historically marginalized groups with cross-cutting identities overcome systemic barriers.

In response to yesterday’s protests, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced that he would propose early elections. If elections are approved by the Cabinet, they will likely take place under the previous electoral law that favored establishment parties. The pro-democracy movement will need to act quickly to consolidate support for a unified opposition and avoid repeating past mistakes, when multiple non-sectarian or “civil society” campaigns have served as spoilers. Although the revolutionaries previously resisted the idea of forming a new political party, it may be their only realistic and peaceful path to power, and could be done by holding a primary with ranked-choice voting to form a unified slate of candidates with popular credibility.

While Lebanon will need to build new parties and elect new leaders in order to change its system, the U.S. already has a candidate and a party with strong potential not only to restore the competent and empathetic governance of the Obama administration, but to build back better, including by enacting systemic reforms like the “For the People Act” (HR1) that Democrats have been trying to pass over Republican obstruction for years. While Republicans carry most of the blame for political corruption, Democrats are not immune from placating special interests in order to win elections. Electing Democrats to replace Republicans is certainly necessary to decrease the scale of corruption, but isn’t sufficient to end it.

America’s electoral system also needs to be democratized. It’s currently a corporatocracy with campaign finance laws and district lines that rig elections against the popular will. The only way to change is by overcoming voter apathy in order to elect candidates less beholden to companies and more likely to pass reforms like public campaign financing, nonpartisan redistricting commissions, and ranked-choice voting.

The explosion in Beirut was just one of many consequences of corruption.

Democracy is a process, not a destination. Every citizen has responsibilities to stay informed, to vote, and to take other actions to defend collective rights. Every generation must guard institutions from corruption and change them if necessary. As the explosions of ammonium nitrate and COVID-19 made clear, democracy is broken when systems not only enable, but encourage politicians to prioritize personal wealth over the lives and livelihoods of the people they’re supposed to protect. The most patriotic action a citizen can take is to strive to fix their nation’s imperfections, which in all true democracies means making our institutions more inclusive and responsive to our people.

Working to save democracy. Formerly @ObamaWhiteHouse. Taught history in Lebanon. @OhioWesleyan & @Kennedy_School alum. Support @RankTheVoteOhio. Views mine.

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