BEIRUT — Lebanon had already been teetering on the edge of an abyss. It's now fallen in. That, at least, is the overwhelming sense here in Beirut following the gigantic detonation that devastated the city on Tuesday, Aug. 4.

The explosion, which killed at least 78 people and was felt kilometers away in all directions, comes in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. The national currency is in free fall, the middle class is disintegrating and state institutions are adrift. And the enormous mushroom cloud of black smoke that appeared at about 6 p.m. yesterday, above the city's port, is the sad symbol of that systematic implosion. It signals the collapse of a model that was supposed to allow Lebanon to rebuild after its 15-year civil war (1975-1990) but instead took it in the opposite direction.

Power cuts and the pandemic

Several hours before the explosion, dozens of demonstrators tried to force their way into the Ministry of Energy headquarters to protest against the electricity outages that have become a daily occurrence in Lebanon. Three, five, 10 hours per day — there are blackouts constantly. How long they last depends on where a person lives and the effectiveness of the "motor," as the generators that serve a particular building or neighborhood are known.

Barely touched by the COVID-19 epidemic this past spring, Lebanon is now facing a second, more violent wave.

The generators were supposed to alleviate the power rationing measures imposed by the national electricity company, a money pit and temple of patronage that is a prime example of the spreading decay in the country's state institutions as a whole. All of the governments that have succeeded each other over the past 30 years promised to reform the electricity sector, which is alone responsible for some 40% of the country's debt. None of them managed to do so.

Also on Tuesday, at about 5:30 p.m. — only a few minutes, in other words, before the chaos — the Ministry of the Interior announced details about a new coronavirus lockdown phase, to take place between Aug. 6 and 10.

Barely touched by the COVID-19 epidemic this past spring, Lebanon is now facing a second, more violent wave. At the rate things are going now, with approximately 200 new coronavirus cases detected every day, the country's health care system will soon be overwhelmed.

In the Rafik-Hariri public hospital, of the 23 beds that are specially equipped for COVID-19 patients, 19 are already occupied. And in reality, there are no other establishments in Lebanon really engaged in the fight against the pandemic. Budget cuts have left the country's other public hospitals without the means, equipment or personnel to cope with the crisis. Private health care facilities are more numerous and offer better services. But most are reluctant to treat COVID-19 patients for fear that they'll scare off other paying clients.

Currency woes and class demotion

The confessionalist political model that governs Lebanon has failed to remedy these glaring dysfunctions. Established to ensure fair representation of all the country's religious communities, the system has instead been perverted by the heads of the different groups, who are often former militia leaders and are unwavering in their positions.

The Taif Agreement that, in 1989, put an end to the war, envisioned a transition toward a civil state. Instead, a kind of "vetocracy" — a dysfunctional government where no one has enough power to really take charge — gradually emerged. The country's oligarchs keep pushing against each other for fear of losing their share of the power. In the end, the only thing the members of this cartel can agree on is preserving their own interests.

Site of the blast in Beirut on Aug. 4 — Photo: Marwan Naamani/DPA/ZUMA

This attitude is also at the root of the economic catastrophe that befell Lebanon this spring. The public financing system is based on deposits in the central bank and on inflated treasury bonds. But because the political class profits from it — most notably through its shareholding in the banks — the government refused to reform the system.

Now, the country's banking and financial reputation is in tatters.

Eventually the Ponzi-scheme pyramid collapsed, triggering a cash shortage that caused the national currency — the Lebanese pound — to lose 80% of its value in the span of just a few months. The price of basic consumer goods skyrocketed as a result, with an inflation rate that, as of June, was up 90% on the previous year. The de facto capital controls instituted by the banks ended up destroying the purchasing power of the Lebanese. The poverty rate, estimated at 35% of the population in the fall, is now close to the 50% mark.

The crisis has hit the Lebanese middle class — long considered the Middle East's wealthiest and best educated — especially hard. A 30-something university professor who earned the equivalent of $4,000 per month last year is now bringing in perhaps $800 a month. Professionals in this income bracket were used to traveling several times a year and driving SUVs. Now they're having to pull their children out of private schools and enroll them instead in public schools — the ultimate sign of class demotion in Lebanon.

The country earned a reputation abroad for offering a certain carefree, expensive and enjoyable lifestyle. But that way of life is now on hold. Because of the plunging pound and the measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of bars, nightclubs and restaurants have been forced to close. Tourism, a pillar of the local economy, is in dire straits, as is the banking sector, which had long been another point of pride. Now, the country's banking and financial reputation is in tatters.

But along with the deep political and economic problems, what's also in crisis — and in need of rebuilding — is Lebanon's raison d'être: its regional role as a service hub linking Europe and the Arab world. And that's why the cataclysm of Aug. 4 will be so painful, because it rocked an already tottering edifice. It's a gut punch to a people already burnt out from exhaustion, a knock-out blow to country that simply can't take another calamity.


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