Anna Kristiina El-Khoury
Early Tuesday morning (15th of October 2019), Lebanon was faced with uncontrolled forest fires stretching over vast areas of mountainous regions, forcing local residents to flee their homes. However, for the Lebanese population, this was not merely a wildfire, but it served as a wake-up call for various other social issues. Emotions were high, and Lebanese civilians turned to social media platform to express their frustrations ranging from questioning the preparedness of the emergency response services, and accusations of corruption, to a call for focus on environmental issues.
The incapability to immediately control the fires, and the need for the Lebanese government to contact other neighbouring countries for assistance, has raised concerns among the Lebanese on the unpreparedness of the Lebanese government. The main criticism of the state’s response relates to the failure to use three firefighting helicopters, due to them being out of service. These helicopters could not have been used, because their spare parts had not been secured, despite being readily available. For the Lebanese, this illustrated the government's lack of a functioning emergency strategy.
Social media trends overwhelmingly placed the blame of mismanagement on the shoulders of the Lebanese political elite. The population did not see the fires merely as forest fires, but as a consequence of political corruption and sectarian divisions. For example, the spare parts for the helicopters were unable to be employed because they remained one year at the custom’s. Civilians pointed out the personal expenses of politicians ranging in millions of dollars, while funding is insufficient for emergency response maintenance, salaries for firefighters, and the preservation of nature. Therefore, the causes for the wildfire, its extent and the lack of control was blamed on corruption, and the political inefficiency, stemming from the eminent sectarian divides among the political elite.
Other criticism of the political elite in social media took the form of conspiracy over the benefits the wildfire has on the political stakeholders. For example, the Lebanese actor Abdo Chahine voiced his disappointment on Instagram towards the government’s emergency response. He noted that politicians benefit from the burning of the vast mountainous areas, due to the possibility to capitalise from the freed land. Others on social media shared his predictions that the affected areas will be turned into construction sites for housing projects, for the immediate monetary benefit of the political elite. These accusations of corruption and political inefficiency have led to demands for a new government, changing voting habits, and even to an uprising against the government.
Environmental concerns surfacing following the fires include the inappropriate waste management practices. These include the use of valleys and forests as landfills. The Lebanese public expressed their concerns, and viewed the wildfire as a wakeup call on the existing environmental crisis in Lebanon.
Within the accusatory and aggressive reactions to the fires, there exists voices of unity. Lebanese civilians used social media to raise funds, to organise voluntary assistance, as well as to share messages of hope and prayer. For many, the incident illustrates how the fire does not differentiate between sectarian affiliation, and, therefore, neither should they. Many expressed their pleasant surprise, how in times of crisis the Lebanese people, within Lebanon and abroad, unite.
This analysis of the immediate social media reactions to the wildfires in the Lebanese mountainous regions gives an overview of the existing tensions in the country. The high emotions of seeing their evergreen forests burn in fires sparked an intense outrage of social issues already on the minds of the Lebanese population.