Lebanon’s epic post-explosion leadership failure

Some of the leaders managed the crisis by uttering irresponsible and provocative statements

A man uses a water hose to put out the remains of a fire that broke out at Beirut's port yesterday, Lebanon September 11, 2020. Image used for illustrative purpose

A man uses a water hose to put out the remains of a fire that broke out at Beirut's port yesterday, Lebanon September 11, 2020. Image used for illustrative purpose

REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Only a few hours after the March 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us… has no place here. There is no place amongst us for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.”

The attacker had chosen a mosque and an Islamic center for his heinous crime, in which he used six guns, including two semi-automatic AR-15 style rifles, to kill 51 Muslim civilians during prayer time, while broadcasting the attack live on his Facebook page. It was an unprecedented attack that shook public opinion worldwide.

The next day, Ardern — the youngest prime minister to assume office in New Zealand in more than 150 years and the youngest female world leader at the time — dressed in black and wore a head scarf to visit victims’ families and other members of the Muslim community to personally offer her condolences and say “the whole country is united in grief.”

Her ability to show empathy as a leader was swiftly followed by strict laws to ban most semi-automatic weapons and restrict access to guns in the country. Her promise to seek justice for the victims’ families was fulfilled when the attacker, Brenton Tarrant, a white supremacist, was in August jailed for life with no possibility of parole. Facing such an unprecedented tragedy with decisive decision-making and swift responses turned the young prime minister into one of the most popular leaders in international politics.

Comparing Lebanon to New Zealand wouldn’t really be fair for obvious reasons. However, in the days and weeks following the largest explosion to ever hit Lebanon’s capital — the Aug. 4 Beirut port blast that killed close to 200 civilians, injured thousands and destroyed more than 300,000 homes and businesses — I have searched in vain for just one responsible, decisive, empathetic, angry statement from any Lebanese leader. The utter lack of leadership qualities shown in the aftermath of the disaster is yet another tragedy in Lebanon.

So I have decided to list some of the statements that were made. Most of them came in the days immediately after the massive blast hit the port, where 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate was illegally stored for years without any accountability.

President Michel Aoun said: “I don’t have direct authority to intervene in the port.”

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said: “We don’t operate nor control nor intervene in the port, nor do we know what it contains nor what takes place inside its premises.”

Then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab said: “I promise the Lebanese that I will not allow this disaster to pass without holding those responsible accountable. The investigation will not take long and will include all those who are involved.”

Free Patriotic Movement leader and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said: “The authorities cannot say they didn’t know. Of course they knew… Now if Hezbollah proves to be involved in this, of course it should be held accountable.”

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri called for an Arab or international investigation into the explosion.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said: “The reforms needed must be implemented. For my part, I am now more committed to implementing it.”

The head of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, said: “Our resignations are ready in our pockets.”

MP Walid Jumblatt said: “If we submit our resignations today, which electoral laws will be used in the next elections? What is the new law? We demand a new non-sectarian electoral law.”

For the record, six weeks after the catastrophic blast, only one of the officials mentioned above has resigned. None of the others have taken an ounce of responsibility or apologized to the people of Lebanon. Keep in mind that all of them have held various positions in the government since the ammonium nitrate was first received at the port in 2013.

In fact, the above statements went out of their way to deflect any direct responsibility or accountability, throw vague accusations at others, and some of the so-called leaders refused to resign before having the audacity to demand a safe transition for their seats into the near political future.

During times of crisis, be it political or business, here are the top three qualities a leader or corporate executive must prove to his people/company.

1. The ability to empathize: Not just with genuine, compassionate statements like Ardern’s immediately after the terrorist attack in her country, but also with the ability to physically be present in the field. In the case of Lebanon, not one official showed up in Beirut’s destroyed streets and neighborhoods, while people were shoveling the rubble away from their ruined homes. Not one official went to help with the makeshift humanitarian initiatives launched by civilians.

2. Communication skills: A leader managing a crisis must show their ability to relate to and communicate with the people. This will restore some of the inevitable loss of trust by keeping them in the loop with the latest information. In Lebanon’s case, a daily press conference should have been held to keep people up to date with rescue efforts, the humanitarian situation and the economic repercussions.

3. Decision-making powers: A compassionate leader during a time of crisis who lacks decision-making powers will no doubt fail to impose solutions or change the status quo, thus losing the trust of his employees/people. Such a loss will certainly lead to his demise, much like the Lebanese officials who are currently in power.

All the Lebanese party leaders in current and past governments have failed to show these top three leadership qualities during times of crisis and beyond. In fact, some of them managed the crisis by uttering irresponsible and provocative statements, threatening the Lebanese with the lifting of subsidies on wheat or fuel, plunging the country into additional economic despair. In addition, other party officials have resorted to bringing back old sectarian fears by provoking armed clashes in several parts of the country.

From the painfully slow and dodgy start to the investigation into the Beirut blast to the questionable forensic and financial audit and the questions surrounding the tendering process, as well as the provocative visit to Beirut of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and his threats to Israel from Lebanese soil (despite the Foreign Ministry’s official refusal of his visit, as reported in local media), Lebanese officials have succeeded in showing one unique quality: Combining excess official titles with a complete and utter lack of leadership skills.

  • Jessy El-Murr is a certified media trainer and a multilingual digital journalist who spent over 18 years writing and presenting political, military and digital news stories for international news outlets. Twitter: @jessytrends
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