After the Beirut Explosion, Beware the Helping Hand of France and the US

In the wake of this month's devastating explosion in Beirut, French and American leaders have made a show of pledging their support to Lebanon. But many have greeted these messages with suspicion in light of the disastrous history of French and US involvement in the country since it attained independence in 1943.

President of France, Emmanuel Macron in London, 2019. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

When Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut following the August 4 explosion that eviscerated the city’s port and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes around it, his words were familiar: “Whenever there is doubt in your minds, remind yourself that we are here,” he declared, standing in front of La Residence des Pins, the sprawling historic mansion owned by the French government in the heart of the Lebanese capital, earlier this month. “Whenever you have a fight that is worth fighting, we will stand by your side,” he continued. But despite the kaleidoscope of Lebanese factionalism, what exactly was meant by “your side” was not stipulated.

The French president began his one-day appearance by traipsing the Armageddon-like scenes on Rue Gouraud. Named after the French general who proclaimed Lebanon as a state a hundred years ago, the uber-trendy street lined with sidewalk cafés, bistros, and bars was built in France’s image, even down to the street grid. (Only a few blocks away, Beirut’s Place D’Etoile follows the blueprint of its Parisian counterpart, as is the case in many other French colonial cities.)

It was these very neighborhoods, some of the richest and most liberal in Lebanon, that were most utterly wrecked by the explosion earlier this month — not the inner-city hinterland, or “poverty belt,” marked by crowded slums and refugee camps, where violence is more often seen and expected. The blast that claimed 177 souls and injured 6,000 others is widely believed to have been caused by multiple levels of bureaucratic incompetence and criminal negligence.

The aftermath of the blast is a staggering scene to walk through: every home and business in the artsy, gentrifying district of Mar Mikhael (St Michael) has been folded into itself like a crumpled piece of paper: windows, walls, furniture, and lives crushed by the pressure wave of the industrial chemical explosion, one of the biggest since World War II. Many of the neighborhood’s picturesque balconied buildings have collapsed onto the streets, crushing parked cars like pancakes.

It was here that Macron was hailed by many Lebanese people for doing what none of their leaders could do. Flanked by masked French commandos, he looked residents in the eye, engaged them in emotional conversations, held their shaking hands, and gave tearful hugs. Many cheered him on while chanting for the downfall of the Lebanese government. Some even begged for a return to the French mandate. (An online petition garnered more than 60,000 signatures.)

Wishing for a reset to colonial servitude after having had independence has been read by many as a sign of desperate times. Even before the explosion, Lebanon was facing economic collapse: with its currency losing 80 percent of its value, half the country’s population has been pushed into poverty. At the same time, French schools and universities are still among the best education available, so many Lebanese have equated France with modernity and have aspired to maintain its influence there.

Two weeks after the explosion, there has been little response to the humanitarian disaster from the Lebanese government. There are no emergency aid institutions, and residents have complained about the lack of a survey of damaged and potentially collapsing buildings.

Many of the volunteers leading the cleanup are part of the anti-government movement that has led protests across the country since last October. US Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale, on his visit to Beirut, lauded their efforts as “profoundly moving,” charting “a path of restoring . . . a Lebanon that is guided by the Lebanese people.” As his armored convoy stood by, he added: “I’m with you, I stand with you, my government does, and the American people do.” Once again, the pronouns were not defined. Which Lebanese people, which ambitions?

Like France, the United States has a long and dark history in Lebanon, deploying troops many times to bolster the Lebanese government in times of crisis, most notoriously in 1983, when 241 US soldiers were killed by a truck bomb, in yet another massive Beirut explosion. They had landed in Beirut as part of a multinational force during the height of the Lebanese civil war, with President Ronald Regan, of all people, attempting to perform the role of savior to the Lebanese people. In September 1982, just a month before the devastating bombing, he could sanctimoniously declare that “By working together to promote peace in Lebanon, to give Lebanon back to the Lebanese people and to help them rebuild their democracy, we are strengthening the forces for peace throughout the Middle East.”

Clearly not all Lebanese people saw the US assistance as a helping hand. Although the multinational forces were pitched as peacekeepers, in the weeks leading up to the attack, they were increasingly engaged in firefights with Lebanese militias opposed to the then-US-backed government.

Engineered by France to favor Christians who had permanently occupied the most important positions of power, the postcolonial Lebanese state was hardly nationally representative for most of the country’s Muslims. And when the war ended in 1990, the United States did not oppose the heavy-handed occupation of Lebanon by the Syrian military, nor the subsequent bulldozing of downtown Beirut in favor of luxury real estate, a reconstruction project that benefited American and European firms and saw much of the city’s residents lose rights to their properties.

In the aftermath of the latest Beirut tragedy, the words of Macron and Hale need to be seen in the same light as Reagan’s decades earlier. When they speak about the “Lebanese people,” who are they referring to? Presumably not the significant amount of the population who have resisted Western policies and interventions.

Hezbollah and its allies control a majority of seats in Lebanon’s parliament, and, despite a few thousand gathered in recent anti-government rallies, these parties regularly draw hundreds of thousands of supporters at their annual events and speeches. Much of their supporters have suffered great losses at the hands of American-made weapons, and many may now ask: Where was the Western generosity and compassion when their neighborhoods, homes, and lives were erased by violence in countless other explosions throughout the last few decades?

A History of Violence

Back in the summer of 2006, it was was not one explosion that rocked Beirut, but thirty-four days of relentless bombings that destroyed not only facades and windows, but razed entire blocks of apartment buildings to the ground. What began as a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli military vehicle — as part of a long-standing border conflict over Israeli-occupied Lebanese territories — led to a scorched-earth Israeli air campaign that rendered 1 million Lebanese homeless and more than a thousand killed. An estimated 4 million US-made cluster bombs were dropped on Lebanon during that conflict, from US-manufactured — and backed — Israeli warplanes.

In the aftermath of the destruction, it was not Western officials that toured the rebuilding efforts, but Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose motorcade was thronged by thousands and showered with rice. The leader of Hezbollah claimed that Iran had spent $1 billion on the rebuilding efforts.

In contrast, the United States has offered $18 million to the victims of Beirut, a miniscule sum compared to $3 billion in aid US taxpayers hand to neighboring Israel every year. For its part, France has chaired an international donor conference, raising some $300 million from mainly European and Arab states. Yet damages from the explosion are estimated at $15 billion, coming amid Lebanon’s crippling $100 billion debt, which has led to a currency crisis resulting in an 80 percent loss of value in the Lebanese currency, slashing salaries and savings.

In major Western publications, a frenzy of analyses and op-eds are confidently arguing that establishment parties, particularly Hezbollah, are losing popularity. But beyond a few months of protests, there is little evidence to suggest that there is much truth to that claim.

Despite the participation of dozens of independent parties in Lebanon’s 2018 parliamentary elections and a record one thousand candidates on the ballot, only one independent won a seat in the 128-seat legislative chamber. While there were plenty of great new ideas being put forward, Lebanon’s ruling parties operate a decades-old political and military infrastructure, including party-affiliated institutions, schools, and hospitals that appease a large portion of the population, especially the poor.

Of course, there is hope that things are changing. Massive crowds flooded the streets across the country in anti-government protests following the announcement of new taxes late last year — amid a litany of other government failures — leading many to believe change was not only possible but imminent. However, the threat of the coronavirus combined with the violent crackdown by security forces have seen protest numbers dwindle significantly, from the hundreds of thousands seen late last year, to the thousands and even hundreds seen during much smaller rallies in recent months.

This does not mean that hope for political change has been lost; many seem to be banking on the swell of anger over the explosions to reenergize the movement. At the same time, the protests continue to lack solid leadership, organization, and firepower. Fury alone does not amount to political power, and this will be particularly apparent as voters whose lives have been devastated will seek help from wherever they can get it.

In his parting words to the Lebanese, Macron mustered a phrase in Arabic: “Whenever you are wondering what we are thinking in Paris, remember these three words: Behabak Ya Libnan” — “I love you Lebanon.” There’s little reason to take that love seriously.