Beirut has come to know the sound of explosions too well in its recent past, but none looked or felt like the blast that laid waste central districts of the city on Tuesday. The devastation is on a scale more usually wrought by earthquakes. The port at the heart of the Lebanese capital was annihilated. Shock waves ripped the facades from every building in neighbouring districts – and behind every shattered window are shattered lives. There are not enough hospital beds or a reliable supply of electricity. Infrastructure for storing and importing many of the city’s essential goods has been destroyed, making scarcity of food an imminent threat. A vast crater at the site of the detonation scars the coastline, but deeper still are the wounds to a nation that was already reeling from economic crisis, debilitated by pandemic and weary from political chaos and corruption.

The explosion appears to have been accidental, a conflagration of chemicals taken from an impounded ship and left in a warehouse for six years, but tragic accidents are not random acts of nature. They have causes that can be investigated, roots in the choices that people have made. Sadly, citizens of Beirut know better than to expect answers. They are familiar with the negligence of a state that has been captured by sectarian interests, running services and utilities as mafia-style racketeering portfolios. A well-regulated port would not have been so vulnerable to industrial accidents of seismic proportions. Authorities in a functional democracy would be scrutinised and held to account.

Lebanon has institutions that simulate democracy, but parliament does not represent the people’s interests. Power is parcelled out to maintain a balance between militarised factions, broadly defined by religion. That fissile arrangement is the legacy of the 1975-90 civil war, and its product is decades of barely functional statehood, for which the energy and optimism of the country’s ordinary citizens (supported by remittances from more affluent émigrés) have until recently provided some mitigation. Their patience ran out last October. The economy had been exposed as a vast pyramid scheme, with public money conjured into existence from a banking system fuelled by unserviceable debt. When the bubble burst, the government tried to squeeze citizens for revenue. A wave of non-sectarian outrage, rallying to the secular Lebanese national flag, succeeded in ousting Saad Hariri, the prime minister.

The successor administration under Hassan Diab has failed to halt the slide towards national bankruptcy. Talks with the International Monetary Fund are stalled over the question of reform to a state that is, by the account of its own former foreign minister Nasif Hitti, on the brink of total failure. Lenders do not want to funnel money into a corrupt machine, and the tiny coterie of traditional power brokers in Beirut put protection of their own financial fiefs ahead of the solvency of a national government.

Resolution to that impasse is critical in the aftermath of Tuesday’s blast. The structure of the problem has not changed, but there is now a heightened level of moral urgency to find solutions. The great danger is that Lebanon’s corrupt elites find ways to game even this tragedy to their advantage, using the country’s accelerated vulnerability to reinforce the status quo of power structures. That has been their cynical modus operandi for decades.

The rest of the world cannot, and must not, turn away from Beirut’s catastrophe. But the people who most need financial assistance cannot force their politicians to embrace the cause of responsible statecraft. The spirit of last October’s upheaval survives more in the national memory than in any institutions. Alongside donations of aid, the support that Lebanon’s friends around the world owe its people is recognition of that spirit. We owe solidarity to a nation that has in the past risen to its feet when tragedy forced it to its knees, but finds its miraculous capacity for resilience tested once again.

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