Foreign Policy

Beirut’s Lethal Blast Reignites Anger Towards Lebanon’s Ruling Elite

BEIRUT—As rescue crews continued to claw through the rubble on Wednesday, searching for survivors, the Lebanese people were searching for answers—and a reckoning.

Miles away from the gigantic crater at Beirut’s port, devastated Tuesday by twin blasts from an apparent explosion of ammonium nitrate, buildings lay in rubble, glass and debris covered the ground, and electric wire hung in the streets. Meanwhile, Lebanese are trying to clean up the capital—and clean up the country.

“As soon as the rubble is clear, we will be back in the streets,” said Hussian al-Hayba, one of thousands of volunteers from across the country who came to the capital to help with the cleanup effort.

There are still many unanswered questions about what led to Tuesday’s devastating blasts, which appeared to stem from the long-term storage of 2,750 metric tons of explosive material used for fertilizer, but here almost everyone is blaming the government and the country’s political elite. Online, activists called for a nationwide protest—using the image of a noose.

The blasts, strong enough to register as an earthquake two countries away, killed at least 135 and left thousands injured in Beirut. The numbers will climb the more rescue crews dig.

With so little trust in Lebanon’s government—the country was wracked by months of protests since October—theories fill the air. Lebanese point at everything from a plot to distract from the country’s dire economic problems to a plan to upstage the announcement of the verdict in the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, scheduled for Friday and now delayed. Others speculated that it was an Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah weapons cache, but none had evidence. Some posted photos claiming to show pieces of rockets. All the confusion has only added to resentment against the government.

The government was already failing in its efforts to find a solution to Lebanon’s financial woes—heavily indebted, in default, with a near-worthless currency and little foreign exchange, and with food in increasingly short supply. The worst blast the country has ever seen, likely caused by government negligence, has only redoubled resentment. Lebanon has been in talks for months with the International Monetary Fund to reach a deal that would unlock billions of dollars of badly needed cash. But there is no agreement among Lebanon’s political leaders, as each faction tries to secure its own interests. Lebanon, meanwhile, sinks deeper into the mire. 

Beirut’s mayor speculated Wednesday that it could take a year or two to rebuild the city. Given the devastation, that seems optimistic. The country’s main port—the entry gate for nearly all of its grain imports and nearly everything else—was all but flattened. 

“This is the first time since the Phoenician era that we don’t have a port in Beirut,” said Nohad el-Machnouk, a member of parliament surveying the damage flanked by two bodyguards. “The most important thing is that there should be an international investigation—most of the Lebanese people don’t trust the government and the Lebanese investigation,” added 

Machnouk, himself a subject of that very distrust and of suspicions of corruption. 

The government put several port officials under house arrest and is promising a full investigation. Few in the streets on Wednesday had any faith in that investigation or their politicians.

“When we started the protests, we should have stayed in the street and put all those thieves behind bars,” said Khayber Khoury, as he swept up glass. He has been in the streets since anti-government protests started in October; like so many here, he is now unemployed. “This is not a revolution. This is an uprising.”

A woman in her 80s walked through the smashed streets of her neighborhood carrying a small shopping bag. Her apartment was completely destroyed. 

“Who is going to help me rebuild? The government won’t help us,” she said. She lived through Lebanon’s civil war. Never, she said, had she seen anything as bad as this. 

As the day went on, buses arrived from the northern city of Tripoli, with those inside chanting against the government—and against the maelstrom of ills that have so tortured Lebanon.

“We have the coronavirus, poverty, hunger, and humiliation,” one yelled.

Another, Mohamad Yeghe, railed from inside the bus against a leadership that has failed him. Some countries have stepped up to offer support, medical supplies, and crews to help Lebanon, but Yeghe wants a different sort of assistance. 

“We ask the United Nations, the European Union, and the Gulf countries to help us to remove those corrupt people because we can’t do anything to them alone,” he said. “We need any help from the outside, please.”

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