Beirut airport: Looking glass into a failed state
A country’s airport is often an accurate gauge of a state’s governance and the ability of its different branches to act in concert. Airports are the face of a country. The first impressions of tourists and locals are determined by those formed when arriving.
This is as equally true of the glistening arrival halls in Dubai International Airport as it is of the decrepit airfield in Beirut, where recurring incidents underscore the inability of the facility and the government that operates it.
Beirut International Airport was one of the flagship projects for late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He spearheaded the reconstruction and expansion of the facility directly after becoming prime minister in 1992, with the first phase completed in 1998.
The airport would also be his own testament to history, being renamed the Beirut-Rafik Hariri International Airport following his assassination in 2005.
However, history has not been as kind to the airport that bears his name.
The airport recently was in the headlines when Israeli Prime Binyamin Netanyahu accused Hezbollah of utilising the area around the airport for secret missile conversion sites, a claim he supported by showing aerial reconnaissance footage of three locations.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a Hezbollah ally, responded by organising a field trip for the diplomatic corps and media to the locations and publicly accused Netanyahu of warmongering.
Netanyahu’s allegations aside, since Hariri’s assassination, both Lebanon and the airport’s infrastructure have been deteriorating. Interruptions of service are commonplace and excessive delays the norm, making the airport a virtual nightmare for the thousands who are obliged to use it and, by doing so, providing the perfect analogy for the fortunes of the country it serves.
During the last few weeks, the airport boarding system collapsed, leading to the suspension of all outgoing flights and trapping passengers in the airport for hours — public mayhem that was quickly shared around the world through social media.
A standoff between the two security agencies tasked with the protection of the airport later led to the closure of the inspection points for hours.
Theoretically, the airport is policed by five security agencies — Customs, General Security, Airport Security, Internal Security Force (ISF) and the Army. Each is tasked with certain sectors, with some areas overlapping. The situation is further complicated by the fact that, within the Lebanese clientelist system, each agency serves as an agent of various sects and, consequently, there is the perennial concern that any conflict between them might suddenly assume a very serious and sectarian twist.
The recent incident involved the ISF, charged with screening and inspecting passengers, and Airport Security, which, as the name suggests, is to maintain security throughout the facility and its environs. Both bodies are nominally under the jurisdiction of Minister of the Interior Nouhad Machnouk but the head of Airport Security, a Greek Catholic Lebanese Army officer who reports directly to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, repeatedly ignored the normal chain of command.
The officer who heads the ISF airport contingent, a Sunni who is part of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s political camp, has butted heads with the chief of Airport Security before, leading to bad blood between the two. Shamefully this most recent fiasco was only resolved when Machnouk intervened directly, making an emergency visit to the airport to return a sense of normalcy to a senseless situation, an added blow to what remains of the semblance of Lebanese statehood.
Neither Aoun nor Hariri took any punitive actions against the two officers involved or their subordinates, preferring to stand by their patrons, even at the cost of weakening the state.
Yet the real fiasco is not that Lebanon’s gateway to the world has turned into a cesspool. Neither is it that the people tasked with its maintenance and protection have failed to carry out their jobs. Rather it is that this failed model is an accurate reflection of the entirety of the state and its different branches.
No one can argue that there is any glimmer of hope for the Lebanese and their failed state. The manner in which Lebanon’s so-called elite and the Lebanese populace that supports them deal with the political, economic and even environmental challenges proves that the rule of law has been replaced by the law of the jungle. A jungle inhabited by beings who have lost the ability to make rational choices that might save them the extinction that otherwise almost certainly awaits them.