The 4 August explosions in Beirut highlight an entrenched political and socio-economic crisis in Lebanon, which is fuelling criminal activity across the country, writes Saif Islam.
Since late 2019, there has been a significant increase in crime in Lebanon. According to police data, homicides doubled in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period last year. Car thefts increased by nearly 50 percent and burglaries by 20 percent. Incidents of petty and street crime also increased considerably. There has been more theft every month between January and May 2020 compared to the same time in 2019, except in April. Moreover, robbery of shops and pharmacies has become more common this year. Police recorded 863 thefts and robberies in the first half of 2020, up from 650 for all of last year.
The primary driver behind the sudden spike in crime is the country’s ongoing and complex political and socio-economic crisis. In October 2019, anti-government demonstrations against new proposed taxes started a major protest movement that continues to this day. The resignation of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the appointment of Hassan Diab as the new premier in January has failed to appease the protesters, who continue to highlight the country’s corrupt politics and economic struggles. In late 2019, protesters were already frustrated with inflation, falling incomes and the decreasing value of the Lebanese pound. The complex economic, fiscal, and monetary crisis was exacerbated by the government’s default of USD 90 billion of debt in March this year.
The Covid-19 pandemic and a significant drop in remittances from the Lebanese diaspora worsened the situation. In May, inflation rose to almost 57 percent, while the Lebanese pound lost nearly 70 percent of its value in June. An estimated 50 percent of Lebanese are currently living below the poverty line, and unemployment has reached more than 35 percent of the working population. Prompted by the dire economic circumstances, some Lebanese have taken out their frustrations on banks and bank employees. There have been numerous instances of anti-government protesters vandalising and carrying out arson attacks on banks since April.
As if things could not get any worse, on 4 August, there were two explosions of over 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which were stored for six years in a warehouse in Beirut Port. The explosions killed more than 150 people, injured at least 6,000 others, caused up to USD 15 billion in property damage, and left approximately 300,000 people homeless. Many Lebanese view the explosion – particularly the authorities’ failure to remove a highly combustible material from a civilian port in six years – as symptomatic of government corruption, negligence, and lack of accountability. On 10 August, the government resigned amid mounting public outrage, throwing the country into further political uncertainty.
Homicides doubled in January-April 2020 compared to the same period last year.
Car thefts increased by almost 50 percent and burglaries by 20 percent during this period.
The ongoing crisis has fuelled insecurity across the country. Organised criminals are taking advantage of the situation, carrying out armed robberies, burglaries, and thefts. More and more people are reportedly storing money and other valuables in their homes due to a loss of confidence in the banking sector, which is why criminals are increasingly targeting people’s houses. Some desperate locals are also resorting to crime to make ends meet. While this is not widespread at present, local commentators suggest worsening conditions may drive more people to crime over the coming months. The surge in crime also coincides with security forces being overburdened with tackling anti-government unrest – including ongoing protests and roadblocks, especially in the capital Beirut – and enforcing various Covid-19 restrictions. In response, some civilians have started policing their neighbourhoods, although the effectiveness of such measures remains unclear.
Further difficulties loom for the new government that will not only struggle to meet its foreign debt commitments, but also require significant international financial assistance to rebuild Beirut. An already stretched fiscus means the new government will have limited tools to tackle the crisis, even as economic conditions deteriorate. Consequently, security forces will struggle to bring crime under control. In the coming months, Lebanese nationals and small businesses will remain the primary targets of crime. However, as international travel gradually resumes, the authorities will try to attract tourists, business travellers and wealthy diaspora to revive the economy. Sophisticated as well as opportunistic criminals are likely to view them as attractive targets.