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Analysis

Lebanese blame Beirut explosion on years of government corruption

With country already mired in a series of crises, anger boils over at government after port blasts kill over 100, though it’s not specifically directed at Hezbollah

Aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In Lebanon, citizens are accustomed to fury at the government, with the crumbling economy, hours-long electricity cuts, and an armed group dominating much of the country’s politics.

But the shock and horror following Tuesday night’s explosion at the Beirut port, which has claimed over 100 lives so far and left thousands wounded, marked a new low for an already demoralized public. In the midst of one of the worst crises in Lebanon’s history, the catastrophe marked what many called a new, painful nadir.

Though the source of the blast remains unconfirmed, most of the evidence so far points to government negligence, and many Lebanese seem to agree. The official government account indicates that 2,750 metric tons (about 3,000 tons) of highly explosive ammonium nitrate ignited Tuesday night, according to Lebanese Public Security Director Abbas Ibrahim. The explosive material had been idling in the harbor since 2013.

An investigation by Al-Jazeera found repeated letters from Customs Director Badri Daher asking for the cache of ammonium nitrate to be removed. No action was ever taken by authorities.

“We knew they were there,” said Beirut customs official Hasam Quraytam, referring to the tons of ammonium nitrate, “We just didn’t know it’d be this dangerous.”

The Higher Defense Council, which has called a two-week state of emergency, has announced that it is launching an investigation. The results will be announced in five days, the HDC said in a statement.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun stumbled through a speech at a Lebanese cabinet meeting on Wednesday, barely raising his eyes from his screen as he promised that the government would uncover the truth behind the explosion and punish those responsible “with the full measure of the law.”

A Lebanese army helicopter drops water at the scene where an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Many expressed skepticism on social media about the impartiality of a government-led investigation.

“They promised to find those responsible. Responsible? Really? Look no more. You are all sitting around the table. And you all represent the failures that led us here. You are the criminals!” Henri Chaoul, a former financial adviser to the government who resigned in mid-June, wrote on Twitter.

The symbolism of the explosion at the port was not lost on the Lebanese, either. Local media has run stories for years alleging that the port was the channel of choice for government officials as they profited to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in pilfered government revenues every year.

An injured man walks at the explosion scene that hit the seaport, in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

A new hashtag began trending on Lebanese social media — “Prepare The Gallows.” Photos of Aoun with the caption “Fall” and “Leave” began circulating as well.

Others told Lebanese MTV that foreign donors should not give money to the government, because the government would “steal all the foreign aid as they stole it before.”

“This [Prime Minister Hassan] Diab government has never been popular,” said Lebanon analyst David Daoud, a researcher at United Against A Nuclear Iran. He noted that the government had seen waves of protests against it since it was formed in January 2020.

A crisis deepens

For many Lebanese, the explosion is just the latest episode in an endless array of wide-ranging government negligence and corruption that they believe has dragged their country into one of the deepest crises in its history.

The explosion rendered 300,000 Beirut residents temporarily homeless, Beirut governor Marwan Abboud said. Half the city has been damaged, devastating its downtown. He estimated the damage at about $3 billion-$5 billion.

In addition to the human toll of the explosion, the economic outlook is highly grim. The vast majority of what remains of the country’s economy is concentrated in Beirut, whose port is now unusable. More worryingly, the explosion destroyed Beirut’s granaries — in a country which imports nearly all its food. The government insists that it has enough wheat for the next month and a half before it can resume imports, but skeptical consumers have rushed to purchase whatever they can, according to Lebanese media.

A wounded man is helped as he walks through debris in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh district following a twin explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital on August 4, 2020. (Marwan TAHTAH / AFP)

Lebanon’s now-wrecked downtown was the pride of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. For Hariri, the sparkling glass high-rises and fancy restaurants symbolized Lebanon’s emergence from the decades-long civil war that devastated the country and divided the Lebanese capital. That the billionaire Hariri was alleged to have made a few bucks on the projects didn’t hurt either.

By the time the blast torched the thoroughfares of Ashrafiyeh and Mar Mikhael, however, the city was already suffering. Since May, with a government unable to agree on basic economic reforms in the midst of a pandemic, a protracted economic crisis has sparked a disastrous death spiral for the Lebanese lira.

While the International Monetary Fund pleaded with Lebanese politicians to be more transparent, ordinary Lebanese saw their savings vanish overnight as the currency plummeted by more than 85%. As people rushed to buy basic goods, price soared, cruelly, ever higher. Many businesses closed, even in Beirut’s downtown area.

“I cried while driving in Hamra last week and I parked on the side of the road in Verdun and sobbed yesterday. Every shop is closed or for sale. [The] places where we spent our teenage years, even childhood in Beirut,” journalist Luna Safwan recounted on Twitter last month.

‘All of them’ must go

Following Tuesday’s blasts, rather than pointing fingers directly at Hezbollah or any one political actor, many are reviving the slogans of last October’s anti-government demonstrations: “All of them means all of them,” meaning the whole government must go.

Daoud said Lebanon is likely to see a repetition of last October’s protests, which were anti-government but which he believes were also fundamentally sectarian.

“I suspect we’ll see more generalized anger at the government and a sense that someone or something is bad. At the same time, when you dig into it, you’ll find it splits along sectarian lines,” Daoud said.

The scene of an explosion at the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. (STR / AFP)

This anger, however, is directed against the second government in Lebanese history to be run by the pro-Hezbollah March 8 bloc, rather than Hariri’s March 14 bloc, which opposed the terror group. Whether or not the anger is directed explicitly at Hezbollah, protesters are not ignorant of that fact.

Hezbollah parliamentarian Mohammad Raad may have sought to quell some of that anger when he told Lebanon Debate on Wednesday that “now is not the time for irritations or provocations or for tallying up points.”

Daoud said that he did yet see any new coalitions forming to oppose Hezbollah specifically.

“There is talk on social media, among my contacts, of anger against Hezbollah, but this is already from people who are predisposed to dislike Hezbollah,” Daoud said.

Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah has made himself scarce in the aftermath of the attack, canceling a planned Wednesday speech and allowing the president and prime minister to become the public face of the response. Hezbollah-linked media, in the meantime, has sought to imply that the United States was somehow involved in the explosion behind the scenes.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Nasrallah may wish to avoid some awkward conversations. It is well-known, for example, that Hezbollah stores weapons in civilian centers. Many Lebanese even know where they are, given that their locations are often circulated on social media. While all evidence points to the ammonium nitrate theory, those weapons are also dangerous to the ordinary people who live in their midst.

Anger seems to be directed at all the elites, however, and the situation is far more desperate than it was in October.

Protesters threw stones and kicked at Hariri’s convoy as it passed through Beirut’s downtown on Wednesday afternoon.

Perhaps in anticipation of a wave of protests, the government has declared a state of emergency for the next two weeks.

“This is an attempt to clamp down on protests rather than an attempt to maintain public security,” Daoud said.

Without some kind of reform — and with 300,000 homeless Beirut residents in the streets — it seems unlikely that Lebanese anger and despair with their government will cool off anytime soon.

“Even Israel, your greatest enemy, didn’t do this to Beirut. You destroyed Beirut,” one young Lebanese man said in a widely-circulated video on Twitter addressing the Lebanese government, which he called “the world’s biggest failures.”

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