On the afternoon of August 4, Aya Zantout sat in Al Makan, the cultural center in the Mar Elias neighborhood of Beirut, where she often volunteered. Suddenly, from her seat just a few feet from the office’s glass door, she heard a strange boom, followed by a thunderous sound that shook the building and sent the door heaving from its hinges. Glass shattered in every direction. “I can’t describe it in words,” she recalled to me in early August, “the way the door flew, the sounds, it was so scary.”
Dazed, Zantout stood on shaky legs and rushed to find Al Makan’s founder, Hiba Khodr, and Khodr’s daughter Jude Chehab down the hall. Surrounded by broken glass, they huddled together, the ground beneath them quaking. “We thought Israel must be bombing us,” she said. They strained for the sound of another bomb, furtively checking their phones. The signal was scrambled. A few moments later, they opened the front door, dashing across a street covered with debris and stunned neighbors, to the top-floor apartment shared by Khodr and Chehab. They found a home in disarray: furniture blown out of place and chunks of the ceiling littering the floor. From the window, they stared in the direction of the sea, where an enormous, poison-pink cloud billowed on the shore. Below, Beirut lay in pieces.
It would be more than an hour before Zantout, Chehab, and Khodr got any understanding of what had happened: At the Port of Beirut, nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate had ignited, triggering one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in history and sending a supersonic blast through Lebanon’s capital. Over the coming days, reports would detail the extent of the human cost — over 200 dead, 6,000 injured, and 300,000 left without homes — along with the financial blow of an estimated $5 billion in direct damages alone.
In the immediate aftermath, Zantout wanted only to contact her family and find a way home. Her parents were safe, while her brother, when they finally located him, was coming out of shock. “He almost died,” she said. He was at a restaurant near the port and had watched as the ceiling collapsed onto a waiter and other patrons. “His hair was covered in glass.”
It took Zantout all evening to make her way home across a devastated city. She spent the night laying awake, haunted by flashbacks, and rose the next morning with an overwhelming need to be out amid her grieving city. “My first thought was I need to be on the streets doing something. I can’t just be inside watching the news or I’ll go crazy.” She messaged Chehab, who was experiencing a similar restlessness, and the two met at Al Makan, along with Khodr and another woman from the neighborhood. The scene on the streets was “apocalyptic,” Zantout recalled, choking up, “I kept thinking, this is our city, all we’ve ever known, destroyed. It’s devastating.”
Before long, the group had purchased gloves and brooms and began moving through the streets, offering what help they could. They worked for hours, a sense of agency mingling with their despair. They met fellow Beirutis, young and old, who were likewise searching for a way to help: neighbors laboring together to sift through rubble, searching for survivors, or transporting the wounded to hospitals. Some circulated missing persons reports, while others appeared bearing snacks and water for cleanup crews. “Everyone had the same understanding,” said Zantout. “We knew we had to take care of these things, because there was no way the government would.”
Cynicism in Lebanon is hard-won — and warranted. The blast came after a year of crises wrought by government corruption and mismanagement, including the collapse of the Lebanese lira as a result of exploitative banking practices by the ruling elite. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the economy buckled further, with poverty rates soaring to around 55 percent and unemployment exceeding 35 percent.
Standing there with their brooms on a blown-out port-side street, Zantout’s small group assessed the enormous financial demands of recovery. This was more than a cleanup job — what was needed was a resurrection. “We were just a few friends who wanted to help. We didn’t have a plan, we weren’t an NGO,” said Zantout. Yet a strategy began to form. They used social media to raise money, roughly $60,000 in the first two weeks, largely from abroad. Their ranks also grew to include at least 45 volunteers. Al Makan became the headquarters for a multilevel operation that included cleanup, home repair, check-ins, and the distribution of food and hygienic products, serving a roster of over 100 household and individual cases; by late September, the number topped 240.
Throughout, Chehab focused on something the government frequently forsook: transparency. “In Lebanon, there are a lot of fake NGOs and a lot of corruption with international aid,” Chehab said. The group posted live updates almost daily, detailing where and how its money was being spent. “Everyone knows that aid that goes through the government usually disappears. Everywhere, people around us were looking for ways around the institutions.”
Across the city, Beirutis shared a similar skepticism of a government that had repeatedly, and spectacularly, failed them. For many, enough was enough — the country, under the current government, would not survive without real, systemic change. As hundreds mobilized to address immediate needs, and worked through their own trauma and grief in the process, they also began gearing their efforts toward wider structural and political change.
“The blast was the culmination of a spiral of disasters we’ve been living through, from broken sewage systems, to lack of internet and electricity, to the financial crisis — it is clear the system is not working, not even trying to work for the people anymore,” said Carmen Geha, an associate professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut and a long-time organizer. “We need an alternative.” Geha has worked tirelessly for that alternative, co-founding Khaddit Beirut — literally, Beirut Shake Up — the day after the blast. The group aims to harness grassroots energy like that of Zantout, Chehab, and Khodr to supplant failed government bureaucracy and, eventually, to challenge it directly.
“It’s one thing to say we hate our politicians — and it’s another thing to show that we have the abilities within our community to solve these problems without them.”
Since the blast, Khaddit Beirut conducted extensive community surveys to identify gaps in government and NGO relief efforts. Based on the findings, Khaddit Beirut focused on “community health, environmental issues, education, and small and medium enterprises.” So far, the group has identified roughly 100 local businesses that it aims to help reopen, creating 1,600 jobs. So far, they’ve secured funding for three. It laid groundwork for a community health clinic in Karantina, a low-income neighborhood near the port that was profoundly impacted by the blast, and began grassroots efforts to address chronic dysfunction in Lebanon’s school system.
Khaddit Beirut’s vision sets it in direct opposition to the dynamics of partisanship, dependency, and corruption that have defined Lebanese politics for the last 30 years. Geha and her colleagues posit a “big picture” that would overwrite the current, sectarian system — an alternative that poses both danger and hope. “We won’t get through this without the entire community working together — our fates are intertwined,” said Geha. “This makes the government nervous.” The more civil society rises to the task, the riskier the work becomes. “It’s one thing to say we hate our politicians — and it’s another thing to show that we have the abilities within our community to solve these problems without them,” she added. “That’s when they really start pushing back.”
The beginnings of this conflict surfaced quickly, as the people’s grief gave way to anger and set the stage for just such a showdown. As reports emerged that government negligence had led to the explosion, the streets of Lebanon began to seethe. “Something inside us shattered,” said Tania Chams Koleilat, a mother of three who volunteers with Khodr and Chehab. “I don’t know if it will ever heal completely. But it made us feel furious, helpless. After everything we’ve been through in the last year, we just couldn’t take anymore.”
Thousands of Beirutis paused their cleanup efforts and flowed toward Martyr’s Square and Parliament Square, setting off days of protest. “It was both a moment of anger and collective grieving,” recalled Chehab, who attended a rally on August 8. “We were crying out our pain, but also saying, ‘We want them all out, not just one or two, but the whole system.”
The demonstrations quickly turned violent. Across the city fires ignited as protesters stormed government buildings, performed mock executions on effigies of politicians, and clashed with law enforcement. Hundreds were injured and arrested over the following days, with Human Rights Watch later accusing the Lebanese police and army of excessive force. “It was unbelievable,” said Chehab. “We are people who have just been traumatized by an explosion! We need to mourn, and you’re shooting at us?”
Photo: Carmen Yahchouchy for The Intercept
The streets of Lebanon are well acquainted with protest. The last year alone has seen months of mass demonstrations, which erupted on October 17, 2019, and lasted through the new year. The catalyst was not a violent explosion but something seemingly banal: a government-imposed tax of $6 a month on internet voice call services, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Yet, coming on the heels of months of economic decline, political scandals, municipal dysfunction, and a badly bungled wildfire, the tax was a bridge too far. Spontaneous protests quickly coalesced in the streets and on social media, where messages of outrage and calls to action circulated widely.
At home in Beirut, Ahmad Tahan, then 24, watched these developments stream across his Instagram feed last October. “I thought it would blow over,” he recalled. But he was soon drawn in. “Of course, by then I was fed up with the government too,” he said, citing the lack of job prospects, decrepit infrastructure, and collapsing economy. “You get to a point, as people, where you just boil over.” By the next day, Tahan was on the street, where he met many young Beirutis like himself: disenchanted, well-educated, and broke. Notably, he also met many from other sectors of society: the elderly, blue-collar and rural workers, non-Lebanese migrant workers and refugees.
The crowds also encompassed all of the 18 sects represented by Lebanon’s confessionalist government. The factionalism fostered by this complex system had often prevented collective action in the past, as politicians exploited partisan divides to garner votes and deflect from their own inadequacies and corruption. But, beginning in October, the streets became an incubator for new alliances, forged across political, religious, and socioeconomic differences, driven by a growing recognition of common crises.
“It was a moment of historic clarity, when people from all the sects in the country were united, realizing they were in the same boat.”
This shift heralded an “unprecedented moment of political consciousness” in Lebanese society, said Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow and director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut and senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. “It was a moment of historic clarity, when people from all the sects in the country were united, realizing they were in the same boat: They were not only all poor, but they were facing a life that had been degraded in every possible way, the kind of deprivations that really drive people to action.”
Watching people break out of their strict, party-line thinking was revolutionary for Tahan, who had grown up in a Lebanon defined by sectarianism. “I’m used to seeing people just follow their leaders without thinking,” he said. “But in October, people started recognizing that the parties were more interested in protecting themselves than their voters.” Political corruption fosters rampant inequality in Lebanon, where, in 2019, the top 10 percent of adults owned 70.6 percent of the country’s wealth.
In addition to political and religious diversity, Tahan noted, the protests also transcended class divides. He had participated in the “You Stink” movement of 2015 — after a government breakdown left municipal services halted and the streets flooded with garbage — but said these demonstrations were often dismissed as “bougie,” centering the young, urban, and upper-class. “The October protest was started by the poorer communities — the people who really couldn’t afford that $6 tax — and then the rest of us joined in,” he said.
The fervor of the protests grew quickly, as did their creativity. Tahan began spending every day on the streets, watching in awe as the movement, which became known as the October Revolution, swept beyond Beirut and into more traditionally conservative areas. “It was everywhere,” Tahan said. “We’d never experienced anything like that.” Protesters staged dramatic actions, such as blocking highways and building a 170-kilometer human chain spanning the country from north to south.
Tahan soon found himself moving from spectator to full-fledged organizer. He and his brother used social media to call for a breakfast protest at Beirut’s seaside Zaitunay Bay, which brought out thousands with just a few days’ preparation.
Tahan’s favorite memory of the entire revolution was November 22, 2019, Lebanon’s independence day. The occasion is traditionally marked by government-run military displays, but last year the protesters staged a counter-celebration, substituting “citizen brigades” for the traditional martial ceremony. “Groups from the different professional unions marched, instead of soldiers: the journalists, the dentists, the doctors, the teachers. It was a display of our capacities as a society, a way of saying, look at how big and wide our movement is. We deserve to choose the future of our society.” The daytime events ended with an “all-night party,” recalled Tahan, complete with DJs and dancing.
The protests included more drastic scenes, too, from the storming of government buildings to brutal clashes with law enforcement. The government began to waver, most notably in the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Even so, the bulk of the ruling class clung on, angering and galvanizing protesters.
The role of local journalists in the movement was key. By spearheading investigations that exposed government corruption in explicit terms, reporters seeded a new culture of accountability. “For the first time, people were naming names on a big scale,” said Mona Harb, a professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut and long-time researcher on movements. “Politicians suddenly felt that people were watching them — they’d try to go out to restaurants and they’d be publicly shamed.” This new demand for transparency has endured, said Harb: “It’s no longer easy or popular to be a politician in Lebanon.”
Yet the politicians proved remarkably immune to embarrassment, preferring to try to wait out and intimidate the demonstrators rather than comply with their demands. The October Revolution activists sustained their public protest for months, in the face of violent crackdowns, arbitrary detentions, character assassinations, online harassment, and even torture. In the end, said Tahan, it was “mostly the weather” that put a stop to public demonstrations: “Our roads are terrible, and they basically flood in the winter.” By around February, in the face of inclement weather and the emerging coronavirus pandemic, the beleaguered demonstrators largely dispersed.
At the time, Tahan and his co-conspirators had no idea that the issues they were protesting — the corruption, nepotism, and incompetence of the ruling elite — had also laid the groundwork for a soon-to-ignite deadly blast. Yet thousands of October Revolutionaries were left asking themselves where to go with their newly acquired political consciousness. “We crossed a threshold in October, as many people broke out of sectarian thinking and lost their fear of criticizing the government,” said Harb. “But is that something that can be maintained, especially as people continue to suffer?”
That suffering soon deepened, as the political class botched the country’s response to the pandemic, and the economy further unraveled. “Daily life for people went completely to hell,” said Khouri, “and the government continued to do nothing.”
Quarantined in his apartment, Tahan felt his hope wane, along with the fading momentum of the monthslong protests. He said, “Some people became so desperate, they started going back to their partisan leaders. They were looking for any kind of help they could get.” He recalled a pervasive sense of hopelessness: “Once again, after we’d already had all we could take, things got worse.”
Photo: Carmen Yahchouchy for The Intercept
On August 4, with the blast, they worsened again — in unimaginable ways. After the explosion, Tahan responded reflexively, heading back to the streets. Like Chehab, Zantout, and the Al Makan crew, Tahan also knew “not to count on the government to take care of us.” Networks established in the October Revolution sprung back to life, as WhatsApp groups and social media campaigns quickly coordinated efforts, rallied resources, and called out predatory NGOs. When protests erupted soon after, veterans like Tahan were joined by newcomers like Chehab and Zantout, who had mostly stayed home in October.
The blast, compounding the suffering of 2019 and the coronavirus crisis, may have been a wakeup call for those who the October Revolution didn’t reach. “Each crisis has activated new people, but this blast shook something deeper. Now, people are asking questions they’ve never asked before,” she said. “They’re questioning the very structure of the sectarian system, asking, ‘Is this what we really want?’ That’s never happened before.” It’s also garnered much more involvement and support from the Lebanese diaspora than any past action, she added: “It’s really interesting to see how many Lebanese abroad, especially young people, suddenly want to be a part of shaping the country’s future.”
How to shape that future remains open for debate. This time around, Tahan said, no one expects protests alone to suffice. “We stood in the streets for months and nothing changed,” he said. “Well, we changed people’s minds, but we didn’t change the government.” Many, like Chehab and Zantout, have stopped going to protests, choosing instead to focus on grassroots work. Koleilat, who has become a regular volunteer with the group, attended an early protest, but said that, after witnessing the government’s harsh response, she “lost hope” in the demonstrations. “In the end, even though I love this country, and I believe in this cause, can I as a mother of three really put my life in danger, when I know it won’t make a difference?”
The combination of delay tactics and violent crackdowns may prove enough to break the burgeoning resistance movement, said Khouri. “This is a population that has tasted a unified national vision and their determination is real, but it’s not clear whether this can withstand all the challenges they face. This elite ruling class has been in power for 30 years, and they not only have incredible networks of clients and allies, but they also have the guns.” The Lebanese state has become “increasingly militarized” in the face of repeated uprisings, Khouri added. Even as more Lebanese struggle to meet their daily needs, any impulse to protest must be weighed against the growing possibility of state violence. “It seems that things cannot go on this way much longer,” he said. “But then again, many of us felt that was true six months ago.”
“The time for details and differences is later. “What we want now is simple: We want the politicians out.”
The rising desperation could help build or undo the movement. For Geha, the co-founder of Khaddit Beirut, the fact that the Lebanese people have “so little to lose” opens up the possibility for bold new steps. “So many of us have no salaries, no health, nothing left,” she said. “The very least we deserve is to allow ourselves to imagine a different way.”
Photo: Carmen Yahchouchy for The Intercept
In the more optimistic view, the blast and the organic grassroots efforts that followed can be seen as an acceleration in the development of such an “alternative vision.” As people like Chehab, Zantout, and Khodr spontaneously respond to the crises around them, they demonstrate civil society’s ability to bypass government stalemate and corruption.
Yet the scale of the problems can be overwhelming. “We’d start by fixing a window, and then the woman would say, ‘Could I have some money to buy milk for my child? Could you help me get diapers?’ Now, they’re calling us asking for help with school supplies,” Khodr said. As donations have slowed and some of their college-age volunteers have returned to class, Khodr said the group is currently assessing new strategies. Two months since the blast, they are unanimous about the need to shift to a more durable vision. So far, they’ve expanded beyond food aid and cash assistance to more long-term projects like vocational training for women and mental health care for children.
Geha said she and her colleagues have been grappling with similar issues, but the shift from dependency on NGOs and politicians to self-reliance is heartening. “We need to all realize that programs are reversible,” she said, “that these manmade disasters can be changed. When we come together and ask these questions, we help each other open our minds.” Other community-based organizations, such as Nusaned and Beit El Baraka, have emerged to address large-scale issues such as equitable housing, a sector which was marred with corruption long before the blast.
Others haven’t given up on revolution. Ralph Nader, an organizer and founding member of Khat Ahmar, or the Red Line, said he’s working to harness the momentum of the last year of protest into a coherent political strategy. His organization has spent recent months reaching out to the scores of activist groups that emerged in 2019, seeking to build coalitions under a shared vision of nonsectarian, democratic opposition. Nader and his colleagues hope to identify and groom members to run in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 2022, but say that overthrowing the current government is the first priority. “The time for details and differences is later,” he said. “What we want now is simple: We want the politicians out.”
For all the passion of those like Nader, Chehab, and Geha, Harb worries about the long-term viability of such civil society initiatives. After documenting activism for two decades, she said the momentum of the last year has been “unprecedented,” but notes the dim track record for the grassroots in Lebanon: “With police suppression growing more violent over time, often civil society makes one or two steps forward, then gets pushed 10 steps back.”
Not everyone can afford to wait. Thousands of Lebanese citizens have emigrated in the last year, with many more desperate to do the same. Exact numbers are hard to tally, complicated by the pandemic shutdowns, but many local experts and journalists have decried a growing “exodus” since the blast. Already, between 10 million and 15 million Lebanese are estimated to live outside the country, compared to only about 5 million who remain there. In a striking role reversal, Lebanese have begun loading onto boats traditionally used by Syrian and other refugees to make risky, illicit attempts to escape across the Mediterranean Sea. (Several Lebanese citizens, including children, have died in these mostly unsuccessful journeys.)
“All I knew was, I can’t abandon Beirut now.”
Tahan said most Lebanese are either trying to leave or know someone who is. “Not one of my friends wants to stay here,” he said. “We are tired of being resilient, we are tired of surviving one disaster after another.” And, while he’s still working daily to help rebuild, he’s also started the application process to emigrate to Canada. “I really don’t want to do it,” he said. “I cry every time I think about it. If I saw any hope, I’d stay. But when you try to change something for the better and you keep getting denied — it feels almost like you’re getting kicked out.”
Zantout also struggles to see a future in Lebanon but said that right now leaving feels impossible. In the past, she’d hoped to move abroad to pursue a master’s degree in architecture, but with her family hit hard by the economic crisis, she’s let that dream go for now. Still, she said the “fantasy” of emigration helps her get through hard days: “That dream of escape — everyone needs some kind of escape right now. It’s all too much.”
Khodr plans to stay but said she’s careful not to press her daughter either way. “I’d miss her if she leaves, but in the end, my generation understands why our children go — we left them a country full of problems,” she said.
For Chehab, who spent much of her life in the United States, the last two months have brought her closer to her Lebanese roots. “Doing all this work has connected me to this city,” she said. “it’s made me feel I can truly call myself Beiruti.” Before the blast, she had plans to relocate to the U.K., but the disaster changed everything. “All I knew was, I can’t abandon Beirut now.”