BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters enraged by official negligence blamed for Beirut’s enormous and deadly explosion vowed yesterday to rally again after a night of street clashes in which they stormed several ministries. “Prepare the gallows because our anger doesn’t end in one day,” warned one message circulating on social media in response to Tuesday’s earthquake-strength blast of a huge pile of industrial chemicals.
The calls for renewed protests came as French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris was to oversee a UN-backed virtual donors conference to raise aid for Lebanon, a country already mired in a painful economic crisis. In Beirut, the fury on the streets has further shaken the embattled government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which saw its first cabinet resignation when the information minister, Manal Abdel Samad, quit yesterday. “After the enormous Beirut catastrophe, I announce my resignation from government,” she said, apologizing to citizens for having failed them.
The revelation that Lebanese state officials had long tolerated a ticking time-bomb in the heart of the capital has served as shocking proof to many Lebanese of the rot at the core of the state apparatus. The death toll from the explosion of a long-neglected pile of ammonium nitrate stood at 158 people, with 60 still reported missing, and a staggering 6,000 wounded, many by flying glass as the shockwave tore through the city.
The blast, whose mushroom cloud reminded many of an atomic bomb, left a 43-m deep crater at Beirut’s port, said a security official citing French experts working in the disaster area. The mood was one of grief and fury in Beirut, a day after many of the dead were laid to rest and when thousands demonstrated in the biggest anti-government rally the country has seen in months.
The country’s worst peace-time disaster has reignited a protest movement against the reviled ruling elite that first flared last October but had then faded amid economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic. As tensions have again escalated, the army Saturday used teargas and rubber bullets to clear hundreds of protesters from the central Martyr’s Square, once more the epicenter of Lebanon’s protest movement.
The street violence left 65 people injured, according to the Red Cross, with footage circulating online showing some demonstrators having sustained severe injuries. In a new tactic, demonstrators temporarily occupied the foreign ministry building before being forced out by the army three hours later. Protesters, some brandishing nooses, also stormed the economy and energy ministries and the Association of Banks, widely hated for cash shortages and asset freezes, before they were pushed back out by soldiers.
Rescuers meanwhile kept digging through the rubble of toppled buildings as hopes slowly faded of finding more survivors from the colossal blast that shook the country and was felt as far away as Cyprus. The explosion was recorded by the American Institute of Geophysics as equivalent in power to a magnitude 3.3 earthquake. It was triggered by a fire in a port warehouse, where a huge shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate, a chemical that can be used as a fertilizer or as an explosive, had languished for years, according to authorities.
Embattled Prime Minister Diab said Saturday he would propose early elections to break the impasse that is plunging Lebanon ever deeper into political and economic crisis. “We can’t exit the country’s structural crisis without holding early parliamentary elections,” Diab said in a televised address, promising a draft bill today. At least six lawmakers have also quit since the Aug 4 explosion.
The head of Lebanon’s Maronite church patriarch Beshara Rai joined the chorus of people pressing Diab’s entire cabinet to step down over a blast he said could be “described as a crime against humanity”. The protesters demand the wholesale removal of Lebanon’s ruling class, which they see living in luxury while millions endure job losses, deepening poverty, power blackouts and garbage mountains piling up in the streets.
Working with the mostly youthful protesters are a group of retired army leaders whose state pensions have been decimated by the collapse of the Lebanese pound. Politics in multi-confessional Lebanon is dominated by former warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war who years ago exchanged their military fatigues for suits, or by their offspring and nephews.
While there are Sunni Muslim, Christian and myriad other groups, the most powerful is the Shiite Hezbollah militia and political movement, which dwarfs the state in manpower and military strength. The protesters charge that Lebanon’s elite is fighting over the spoils of government, beholden to their personal and sectarian interests rather than the good of the nation. – AFP