The Port of Beirut: A Suicidal Flee
By Hanadi Samhan, on 11 September 2020
On 4 August 2020 at around 6:00 pm two large explosions rocked the Port of Beirut and ripped through most of the city leaving more than 180 people killed, 6,000 injured, and 300,000 homeless. My husband, my younger daughter Hind, and I were sitting in the living room of my apartment in Beirut on 4 August enjoying the light breeze from the air conditioner before the daily electricity cuts. My older daughter Leila was in the dining room deep in her Nintendo world. A sudden and terrifying thunder like sound broke the silence and shook the entire building. I looked at my husband’s face trembling in fear and not knowing what to do next—where should we go? The door of the dining room was locked shut from the force of the shock and Leila was screaming at the top of her lungs for us to come help her. Within seconds we heard another explosion and I saw cobbles on the floor. I ran to knock the door down to reach Leila. I held her in my arms, and we went down to the lobby of the building and hid under the staircase. I saw glass shattered on the floor and people looking out of their windows and balconies wondering if the series of explosions was over. I held my daughters close to my chest while seeing my life flash in front of my eyes for the first time since the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990); time had stopped and the future became obscure.
I went back to my apartment, grabbed my phone, and tried to look for answers. I followed the news and here it was: two large explosions at the Port of Beirut. At first, I felt relieved to know that it was a local incident, no sacred war, no Israeli attacks, and no massive car bombs. Videos then started circulating on social media depicting people drenched in blood, hospitals destroyed, trees uprooted, and residential buildings collapsed. It felt like the heart of Beirut stopped pumping blood into its veins, as if the city was declared dead. I thought to myself that the port of Beirut had committed suicide!
The Port of Beirut was dear to my heart. It was the last urban planning project that I had worked on before I moved to London in 2018 to pursue my academic passion. In fact, the port project was one of the most challenging urban developments that I had encountered in my career given its long controversial history. Since its establishment in the 1880s, the strategic location of the Port made it vulnerable to misuse. My many encounters with the Port extended beyond developing masterplans and running technical workshops. They gave me insider knowledge on the political, social, and economic dynamics of the site.
From my frequent field visits to the Port, I remembered the uniqueness of the grain silos—the grandiose structures of Ottoman heritage and silent witnesses to the port activities. Pigeons hid in their shadows from the heat coming from the seaside, adding life to a quiet area. The passengers’ station located at the far eastern side of the Port was another hidden gem—a serene and innocent flowery area in a loud and shady industrial location.
These nostalgic memories to me brought out the contradictions in every corner of the Port. Its container yard developed to become one of the most state-of-the-art port structures along the Mediterranean Sea. Its transhipment activities were prosperous, with unprecedented rates of high revenues channelled to the Port authority as opposed to the Lebanese customs department. The free zone was expanding at a rapid pace and applications for potential tenants were on the rise. In contrast, the cargo area was in a derelict condition; warehouses were informally divided according to religious factions, handling equipment were outdated, and operations were primarily manual and old fashioned.
One of the main characteristics of the Port was its temporary administrative body created exceptionally after the Civil War to oversee its daily operations and maintenance. Since 1993, three temporary committees were formed to manage the Port under the appointed presidents. In the process, the Port became a space of exception to the sovereign power of the government of Lebanon. After three decades of surviving as a ‘Homo sacer’, the port became devoid of life, stripped “of every right by virtue of the fact that anyone can kill him without committing homicide; he could not save himself in perpetual flight or to find a foreign land.” (Agamben, 1995, p. 150). My imaginary old friend, the Port of Beirut, became old and attached to the city that it could not escape nor leave to a foreign land. The Port now exploded and committed suicide! Perhaps now the exception might end and a new way of life begins.
The Port of Beirut was always a hot spot for deep conflicts rooted in geo sectarian rivalry. It occupied a strategic location along the Mediterranean Sea, ranking among the top 10 most important ports in the region. Before the explosion, it operated as a sub-regional transhipment hub and served all the largest liners such as CMA CGM, MSC, Hamburg Sud, and Maersk. Before the start of the Civil War in 1975, Lebanon’s ports in general, and the Port of Beirut in particular, were important gateways for commerce in the Middle East. Since then, the capacity of the central government became limited and the country plunged into further chaos and uncertainty. Militias that are divided by religious sects seized control over portions of the country’s official ports and constructed internal makeshift ports. The war ended, the reconstruction process started in 1994, and the country began to heal from the fifteen years of massive destruction. After the war, the Port was no longer under the control of the Lebanese parties, particularly the Maronite Lebanese Forces, and was operated by temporary committees appointed by the newly formed government of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The latest temporary committee was formed in 2002 to include seven members and allies that manage the Port. The economic activities of the Port flourished, and the revenues reached US$ 1 billion in 2014. Nevertheless, economic, and political benefits continued to reach the political parties whose interests and goals do not align with the need for a balanced economic and political solution for Lebanon.
The temporality status of the committee is tasked with exceptional powers over the expenditures of the Port and its revenues, defining public works and approving bids away from government censorship. Along with this committee, the customs department is tasked with the protection of the public interests in Port activities and is responsible for collecting tax revenues and monitoring any violations. Both actors functioned under the exceptional status of the Port and expanded their influence on the use of its revenues. In fact, the committee does not follow any censorship requirements whether from the Ministry of Finance, the bidding administration, the state audit institution, and the central inspection agency, although it operates as public property through public finances. The Port customs has an established reputation of being dangerously corrupt and is often described as the ‘Ali Baba grotto’ since it grants a golden ticket to rapid wealth to its members. The exceptional temporariness of the committee limited the political right to the Port and its ability to participate in any juridical form of accountability. The predators are not yet identified, even after the death of the Port. To this moment, it is not yet known if the Port’s ‘suicidal flee’ was an innocent industrial accident or an urbicide that targeted Hezbollah, the local political party. International Investigators from the FBI and British and German forensic teams travelled overseas to decipher the motives behind the explosion of the Port without any possibility for escape or potentiality for a change.
One should not solely attribute the suicidal act of the Port to corruption or negligence. I also find it too linear to say that the failed sectarian system in Lebanon is responsible for the Port incident. Rather, it is the Port’s exceptional system of administration, activities, and distribution of revenues that led to the recent suicide under the most radical and hurtful ways. It is the perpetual fights among the different Lebanese parties that hindered any development schemes for the Port. It is the frozen status of its administration that prevented a potential new life for the Port and an active engagement in the political life of its immediate and wider surroundings.
Despite its strategic location, expansion plans for the container yards and development schemes for the Port were obstructed and the reclamation of its Basin 4 was vilified. The maritime customs strongly objected to the initial initiative that aimed to upgrade the container yards and called for the protection of the interests of Lebanese Christians in the region. They asked the patriarch to intervene and stop the implementation of the initiative. Another attempt to expand the container yards was proposed, calling for a comprehensive masterplan that aimed to upgrade the cargo area and replace the deteriorated warehouses, including warehouse 12 where the explosive materials were stored. By the end of 2018, the masterplan was approved by the committee members, however, its implementation was halted pending the green light from the minister of public works. During this period, a new government took office after the 2018 elections and the masterplan was again put on hold for the same reasons: Basin 4 caters to the interest of Christians and hence, reclaiming it means burying all present and future interests. Accordingly, the basin was never reclaimed, and the warehouses were never rehabilitated and continued to face an uncertain future. After the explosion, the life in the Port of Beirut stopped and its Basin 4 and destroyed its cancerous warehouses.
Several urban planning development schemes were proposed to change the way of life in the Port and end its exceptional state. They were, however, never approved by almost every public authority and the Port remains an exceptional area in its management and operation. It decided to end its life, killing with it valuable workers and residents of Beirut, people who lost their lives as well to do the right thing.
 Those who are familiar with the Port development plans and its expansion schemes are aware of the complications around the reclamation of Basin 4 that made media headlines in 2012, 2015 and 2018.
 One of the main concerns raised during the project was the overgrowing transshipment business taking over large areas in the container yard. The transshipment does not incur tax revenues to the customs department which is known for its endemic levels of corruption (https://www.albawaba.com/business/beirut-port-corruption-446903).