Lebanon’s political elite faced pressure from all sides Sunday after a deadly explosion blamed on official negligence, with the first cabinet resignation over the affair and angry protesters clashing with security forces.
As hopes faded of finding any survivors of Tuesday’s blast, social media was flooded with furious posts after a night that saw protesters briefly take over ministries in central Beirut.
A picture went viral on social media showing the city’s devastated port, with a low wall in the foreground bearing the spray-painted message: “My government did this.”
While it is not known what started the fire that set off a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, protesters say the disaster could not have happened without the corruption and incompetence that have come to define Lebanon’s ruling class.
“Those who died paid the price of a state that doesn’t care about anything except power and money,” said protester Tamara, 23, whose friend Rawan, 20, was killed in the blast.
“It’s not enough that ministers resign,” said another of her friends, Michel.
“Those who put the explosives there must be held accountable. We want an international tribunal to tell us who killed (Rawan).”
The explosion devastated Beirut and took the lives of at least 158 people.
The Lebanese army’s Colonel Roger Khoury, who was leading a rescue team at the blast site, said Sunday that “we have fading hopes of finding survivors”.
The catastrophe has revived the mass anti-government protests that had for months demanded the wholesale removal of Lebanon’s political elite, until coronavirus lockdown measures brought an uneasy calm.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds gathered again in and around Martyrs’ Square, a short walk from the site of the blast.
Police fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters hurling stones and shooting fireworks near an access street to parliament, AFP correspondents reported.
– Tear gas, rubber bullets –
Demonstrators had briefly taken over several government ministries the previous night, while security forces scuffled with larger crowds of protesters converging on the epicentre of the protests.
Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said some security forces had responded by indiscriminately firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
“Instead of deploying the army to help residents clear rubble from their homes, businesses, and communities, the Lebanese authorities chose to deploy them and other security forces against protesters,” she said.
Saturday’s violence injured 65 people, according to the Lebanese Red Cross, while lawyers supporting protesters said security forces made 20 arrests.
The August 4 explosion came as Lebanon was already reeling from an economic crisis that has seen its currency collapse, plunging swathes of its population into poverty.
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris oversaw a UN-backed virtual donor conference to raise aid for the cash-strapped country.
The world must respond “quickly and effectively” and ensure aid goes “as efficiently as possible to the Lebanese people,” Macron said.
In a joint statement issued after the conference, donors pledged the assistance would be “directly delivered to the Lebanese population” under the leadership of the UN.
They also offered support for an “impartial, credible and independent inquiry” into the disaster — something President Michel Aoun said would only “dilute the truth”.
US President Donald Trump meanwhile urged Lebanese authorities “to conduct a full and transparent investigation, in which the United States stands ready to assist”.
New aid pledges were made while the embattled government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab took another hit Sunday with the resignation of information minister Manal Abdel Samad.
Several lawmakers also quit and local media reported Diab was mulling announcing the government’s resignation.
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.
– ‘Transparent investigation’ –
The blast wounded a staggering 6,000 people, many bloodied by flying glass as the shockwave tore through the city and left a 43-metre (141 foot) deep crater at Beirut’s port.
Diab said Saturday he would propose early elections to break the impasse that is plunging Lebanon ever deeper into political and economic crisis.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri called a meeting of the legislature on Thursday at 0800 GMT “to question the government on the crime that struck the capital”, according to the state-run National News Agency.
The disaster has revived anger at a ruling class seen as living in luxury while millions endure job losses, deepening poverty, power blackouts and garbage mountains piling up in the streets.
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 were replaced by their offspring and nephews.
While there are Sunni Muslim, Christian and myriad other groups, the most powerful is the Shiite Hezbollah movement.
by Tony GAMAL-GABRIEL