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After the Beirut blast, the world needs a more stable Lebanon

Heritage houses that were destroyed in the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, are seen hold by scaffolding, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday. In the streets of Beirut historic neighborhoods, workers are erecting scaffolding to support buildings that have stood for more than a century - now at risk of collapse because of the explosion.
Heritage houses that were destroyed in the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, are seen hold by scaffolding, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday. In the streets of Beirut historic neighborhoods, workers are erecting scaffolding to support buildings that have stood for more than a century - now at risk of collapse because of the explosion. (Hussein Malla/AP)

In Beirut, the benchmark for disaster has been Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Few who survived it thought it could ever be matched.

“A rocket struck upstairs, one floor above me,” said resident Farida Saleba, describing a harrowing close call during the conflict. “This blast was worse.”

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She’s literally picking up the pieces from the August 4 Beirut explosion that killed nearly 200 people and displaced more than 300,000. The blast shook her modest home, where she’s lived more than 50 years. A trained theatrical worker, Ms. Saleba hasn’t had a job in years. She’s not alone – half the country’s workforce is unemployed.

She may have swept away the plaster and broken glass but the signs of a disaster greater than the blast are everywhere. Even before the blast rocked Beirut, Lebanon was facing the worst economic crisis of its modern history, with the economy and the labor market in near collapse. The nation’s leadership was shaky at best, with outsized influence from regional neighbors in recent years, threatening the always restive balance among the three factions that share power in Lebanon: Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, and Maronite Christians. And that was before the blast, the final blow that forced the nation’s prime minister and cabinet to resign. A prime minister was hurriedly appointed to form a caretaker cabinet until a new government can be formed.

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This latest disaster is compounding the misery of an economic decline compounded by strict COVID-19 lockdowns.

Whatever savings Ms. Saleba and nearly 6 million Lebanese have are locked in shuttered banks, frozen by government order. The freeze remains, a move aimed to stop the slide of Lebanon’s currency after a failed attempt to bolster its value against the U.S. dollar.

It’s a gamble that left Ms. Saleba and millions like her holding the tab, a lifetime of savings locked behind bolted doors. These inaccessible funds are now jokingly referred to as “lollars” — their value sits higher than local currency, but lower than fresh dollar accounts. It’s the type of joke you have to laugh to keep from crying. How will she and more than 300,000 others who were impacted by the blast be able to pay for repairs if they cannot access their savings?

Lebanon’s middle class are left at the table with a host’s bill they cannot afford. Nearly 3 out of every 4 people here have endured income loss, reduced working hours, layoffs and job losses. Coronavirus lockdowns kept people from working.

And if the middle class is hurting, we know Lebanon’s poorest are in dire straits. Extreme poverty in Lebanon has nearly tripled since the start of the year. The most expensive item right now for many is food.

The blast complicated every aspect of Lebanon’s economic crisis. These neighbors of ours are hurting beyond measure right at a time when its stability and recovery are needed most. The Beirut explosion blew the lid off this Pandora’s box of economic problems as easily as it shook the walls of Farida Saleba’s modest Beirut home, just blocks from the epicenter.

Lebanon will continue to need assistance as it recovers and rebuilds in the months and years ahead —even as its plight disappears from our news feeds. A modest step would be supporting the request of over 80 members of the House of Representatives to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Lebanese nationals living temporarily in the U.S., allowing them to remain in this country — and to continue sending remittances to relatives back home.

International assistance can point Lebanon’s economy towards health at a time of critical influence. Political forces are circling Beirut’s new power vacuum, ready for the opportunity to step in. Following the lead of France, the international community must commit significant humanitarian aid for the blast and the greater economic disaster in a way that effectively reaches those in need. Such a response, matched with transparent leadership from Lebanon’s government, would help prevent deadlier forces from taking root in these, the formative years three decades past the country’s devastating civil war. An unstable Lebanon is one the global community can ill afford, especially in a Middle East region trying to find its way to peace and prosperity amid small and great power competition.

Nicole Hark (nhark@lwr.org) recently returned from Beirut, where she was directing the emergency response of Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief, an international humanitarian NGO.

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