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Jakarta Post

Renewed protests as pressure mounts on Lebanon government

  • Tony Gamal-Gabriel

    Agence France-Presse

Beirut, Lebanon   /   Mon, August 10, 2020   /   09:47 am
Renewed protests as pressure mounts on Lebanon government Lebanese protesters, enraged by a deadly explosion blamed on government negligence, clash with security forces for the second evening near an access street to the parliament in central Beirut on August 9, 2020. - The huge chemical explosion that hit Beirut's port, devastating large parts of the Lebanese capital and claiming over 150 lives, left a 43-meter (141 foot) deep crater, a security official said (AFP/Joseph Eid )

Lebanon's political elite faced pressure from all sides Sunday after a deadly explosion blamed on officials' negligence, with the first cabinet resignation over the affair and re-energized protesters vowing more action.

As hopes faded of finding any survivors of Tuesday's blast, social media was flooded with angry 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 was killed in the blast.

The explosion devastated Beirut and took the lives of at least 158 people. The Lebanese army said Sunday that hopes had dwindled of finding anyone alive.

"We can say we have fading hopes of finding survivors," Colonel Roger Khoury, who heads a team of military technicians at the blast site, told journalists.

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 epicenter of the blast.

Clashes broke out with security forces who fired tear gas to disperse crowds. 


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 capital's main protest camp. 

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.

The violence injured 65 people, according to the Lebanese Red Cross. Security forces also made 20 arrests, according to a group of lawyers supporting the protests. 

The August 4 explosion came with Lebanon 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 donors conference to raise aid for the cash-strapped country.

The world must respond "quickly and effectively" to the disaster, Macron warned, urging international cooperation "to ensure that neither violence nor chaos prevails".

In a joint statement issued after the conference, donors pledged the assistance would be "directly delivered to the Lebanese population".

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.

US President Donald Trump on Sunday called for Lebanon to conduct a "full and transparent investigation" into the explosion, but many have called for an international enquiry.

Diab said Saturday he would propose early elections to break the impasse that is plunging Lebanon ever deeper into political and economic crisis.

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 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 by their offspring and nephews.

While there are Sunni Muslim, Christian and myriad other groups, the most powerful is the Shiite Hezbollah movement.