A terrible explosion in the harbour of Lebanon’s port city of Beirut, Hangar 12, led to massive destruction.
However, it is not only the saddest figures of the tragedy – one hundred and sixty dead, more than six thousand injured, over three hundred thousand people displaced – as well as the destruction of the port infrastructure and the housing stock of the city that grieve the world.
The situation as a whole is worrying, especially with regard to the fragility of the country, considered an example of democracy and freedom in the region, now undergoing a period of devastation.
Lebanon has always appeared to me as a source of ideas, of planning, of perspectives, with a vibrant youth, a country full of international activities, one of the centres of the world, especially when it comes to the MENA area (Middle East and North Africa). It is really unbelievable and painful for me that the country could now become an empty image on the map.
Was such an incident necessary to bring Lebanon with all its contradictions and contrasts to the attention of the international community and public opinion? What about unresolved situations? And what about the demands of the young people who, in these years and especially in the last period, have been asking for the future to be taken over?
Lebanon is an extremely fragile country, with an economic crisis that plagues it and puts it on the brink of bankruptcy. There is a lack of electricity, a lack of fuel and spare parts for generators, now there are areas where it is difficult even to find food. A country that imports almost everything. It is the very structure of the country that risks collapsing under the blow of the explosion, because bank deposits, salaries, pensions are in fact disappearing.
The dramatic explosion of last August 4th has further exacerbated the people’ souls. The protest has been heated by the indignation aroused by the inactivity of the institutions, which had already emerged last autumn during the crisis of Saad Hariri government. Saturday afternoon protests were followed on Monday by the announcement of the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab. These are important signals that could lead to a turning point in Lebanese politics, if combined with a redrafting of the rules of the game shared by all the main players.
I agree with the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said that the event that shook Beirut could be an “historic opportunity” to rebuild the country’s unity and move towards the no longer postponable goal of comprehensive reforms, to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people. The aftermath of the disaster is already underway and can lead to a real process of transformation of the Lebanese State. However, although there is a general consent on the need for a new “social and political pact” for the country of the cedars, there are also many ideas on how the State should be re-founded.
The visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to the sites of the tragedy in Beirut caused a lot of uproar, as did his announcement that he wanted to make a contribution to overcoming the political and economic stalemate that is paralysing Lebanon. But we strongly believe that it is the Lebanese people who must build their future, especially at this time when feeling that they are the protagonists of their own history is crucial. The time has come to promote a new concept of ‘citizenship’ beyond religious beliefs. It is a process that has been working on for years. I myself have closely followed the events of sectarian conflicts, particularly in Tripoli in Lebanon, the Lebanese have always told me that they want to feel like ‘citizens’. What result can we draw from the picture of a child from the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen areas in which he describes his daily life: a tank on which a dove flies with the flag of Lebanon in the background? No one else can tell the Lebanese now what are the solutions to solve their problems. They have to find ways and means in the near future, then we can follow the process.
Lebanon, which came out of the civil war, has long been considered a model able to guarantee representativeness to all religious faiths, celebrated also by Pope John Paul II back in 1997, in a region such as the Middle East where these features are not found everywhere. Nevertheless, many have been excluded from the religious system or failed to benefit from it in terms of religious patronage. It was these people who marched onto the streets last autumn, no longer feeling represented by the political class, accused of corruption and of preserving their position. The excessive fragmentation of decision making, as well as the search for consensus at any level and on any matter by all the political groups, has paralysed the system by not being able to deal with the issues that have been holding the country back for twenty years. This situation has most recently emerged in the field of energy, waste management and the lack of attention paid to environmental protection.
Structural deficiencies in a country where wealth has always been in the hands of a small minority. In addition to all this, since 2011, the war in Syria has had an impact on Lebanon’s stability, both from a humanitarian point of view, with more than two million refugees being hosted with extraordinary generosity, and from a political point of view, as there has been a political disagreement over the role that the country should or should not have played in the crisis in Syria.
Today we are facing the challenge of reconstruction and humanitarian emergency: the damage to port infrastructure costing around ten billion dollars, there is a port to rebuild, and we need to provide humanitarian aid to an overwhelmed population. Such aid is becoming an opportunity and a real competition between powers. There are actors such as Saudi Arabia, China, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Russia. Then there is the European Union and its members, including us.
In the unfolding of everyone’s interests, the capacity for action of the European Union countries will be decisive, as will the contribution of the UN through the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
As for us, we have immediately put in place a supply of 8.5 tons of health aid in line with our successful and highly appreciated way of acting in the emergency, allocating a further 9 million euros of humanitarian assistance in addition to the 14.5 million already allocated in the 2020 budget of our Cooperation. We are well aware of the need to act in an increasingly synergic way with France and more generally as Europe, in those crisis areas of the enlarged Mediterranean that are so important for us, such as Sahel, Libya and Lebanon. A greater sense of synergy that is increasingly necessary today also in the light of Brexit and the partial withdrawal of the US from the Mediterranean area. It is no longer the time for a single country to move forward. We must act from an increasingly Euro-Atlantic perspective to guarantee the security and well-being of a vast geopolitical area, including the central Mediterranean, which is vital for both our own stability and that of Europe.
With regard to our cooperation with France in Lebanon, we’ve been working together for a long time within the International Support Group for Lebanon (of which we are part together with a small number of countries) and in full coordination with Paris, we have organised two international conferences to support the Lebanese security forces (the last one in 2018). The Group, created to ensure effective support for Lebanon’s stability, met for the first time in September 2013 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, and was attended by the P5 (USA, Russia, UK, France, China), EU, UN and Arab League, followed by Italy, Germany and the World Bank. At the request of the Lebanese government, supported by the UN and France, the Italian government organised on 15 March 2018 the second ministerial conference in support of the Lebanese security forces, with the participation of UN Secretary General Guterres and the then Prime Minister Hariri. The conference gave a boost to the strengthening of Lebanese security institutions (including the police), calling for a greater commitment of the Lebanese parties to ensure a tangible disassociation from regional crises. The Italian government then supported the CEDRE conference, organised by France on 6th of April 2019, to relaunch investment and improve infrastructure and promote the country’s economic development.
Italy’s role in Lebanon is of paramount importance. Our commitment here is significant and long-standing: we are strongly committed to supporting regional stability, of which Lebanon is a pivotal element; our bilateral relations, consolidated at all levels, are also very strong. A history of solidarity, cooperation and partnership that began in 1983, when our two governments signed the first agreement to provide Italian funding for the reconstruction of Lebanon, devastated by the civil war. A collaboration that sees in the Italian Cooperation one of the most important reference partners for Beirut, to the extent of becoming a key partner in many sectors, also in the action strategies aimed at resolving the dramatic impact of the Syrian crisis.
The work of the Civil Society Organisations (OSC) in Lebanon, coordinated by the Italian Development Cooperation Agency (AICS), has been great and excellent and has been an important asset in the country for decades. In recent years there have been many initiatives financed through the bilateral channel in favour of institutional strengthening in social development policies (including support for minors, women and gender issues, improvement of the health service), environmental protection, infrastructure (especially related to the water network and waste disposal), agricultural and rural development, protection and enhancement of cultural heritage. In recent years, sector studies have also been launched to intervene with development projects financed on credit aid in innovative areas for the Italian Cooperation in Lebanon. This activity is preliminary to the launch of programmes for the development of industrial districts, eco-sustainable tourism and the management of marginal coastal areas.
Moreover, the prominent responsibility that Italy has assumed with the MIBIL bilateral mission to train the Lebanese Armed Forces, which represent a symbol of national unity beyond the confessional political divisions, also emerges. The Italian leadership of the UNIFIL mission, led by Gen. Stefano Del Col as Force Commander, is worthy of special recognition. This is a highly important and sensitive role, considering the risks of a conflict in the region, which might have one of its focal points along the blue line. From this perspective, Italy has been able to gain recognition for its reliability and experience in conducting the mission, and it has a clear interest in preserving regional stability. This is proven by the statement on Facebook by the Israeli Ambassador to Italy, Dror Eydar, according to which the offer of Israeli aid to the Lebanese government was formalised by the Israeli Armed Forces through the Commander of UNIFIL, Stefano Del Col. A clear confirmation of the extent to which the international mission is able, even at a time like this, to make two countries formally at war and, in a regional context much more deteriorated than 2006, dialogue with each other.
Being able to interact with all the political and social representatives of Lebanese society, thanks to the commitment made in recent years to support all communities also through civil-military cooperation projects (CIMIC), allows us to be a reliable partner, able to talk to everyone.
We are present in Lebanon and alongside Lebanon, something that we are always grateful for, which is expressed in our activities that are at the heart of the fundamental issues in the country and in the area. We are present with our style, our language, our determination. The answer to what is meant by the child’s drawing symbols can only be given by the Lebanese, together with our help in creating the conditions for the flag without tanks in the streets and for the dove to be a symbol of unity and full citizenship.