Lebanese angry at politicians' blame game after deadly blast

Lebanese angry at politicians' blame game after deadly blast
Members of Lebanon's entrenched political elite are pointing fingers at one another, after an explosion ravaged Beirut. But ordinary Lebanese are not impressed.
4 min read
05 August, 2020
At least 135 people were killed in the explosion [Getty]
Lebanon's entrenched political elite are attempting to shift blame after a colossal explosion killed more than 100 people and made as many as 300,000 homeless, but angry residents aren't having any of it.

Authorities say that the blast which ripped through the capital Beirut was caused by a fire that broke out in the country's main port and ignited a years' old store of highly combustible ammonium nitrate fertiliser.

The powerful blast wave was felt as far away as Cyprus and has caused an estimated $3 to $5 billion worth of damage spreading across more than half of Beirut.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab termed the incident a "disaster", but locals are not impressed with official attempts to avoid accountability or write off the explosion as an industrial accident.

As of Wednesday evening, the top trend on Lebanese Twitter was: "#Prepare_the_gallows".

Interior Minister Mohammed Fehmi told citizens on Tuesday to ask the Customs Administration why some 2,750 tonnes of highly flammable material were kept within reach of residential areas.

Customs officials have shifted blame elsewhere, however, with Director General Badri Daher insisting the administration had asked to be allowed to "re-export" the ammonium nitrate.

Documents seen by Reuters show multiple requests by the Customs Administration for the judiciary to allow the sale or re-export of the material, which was confiscated more than six years ago.
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The head of the Beirut port has also said the dangerous material was requested to be removed, but no action was taken. Port officials knew the material was dangerous, Hassan Koraytem said, but not "how dangerous".

Meanwhile, rumours swirl that customs officials did not push too hard for the ammonium nitrate to be removed because some wanted to sell it for profit.

Lebanon's cabinet announced on Wednesday it would put all those responsible for the seizure and storage of the ammonium nitrate on house arrest pending an investigation.

Prime Minister Diab promised to hold those responsible for the explosion accountable, while President Michel Aoun vowed the "harshest punishment" possible.

Angry Lebanese believe that many, if not all, of those responsible will enjoy impunity. 

Read more: Beirut Explosion: Be angry, not just sad, for Lebanon

Demonstrations calling for an end to the political elite, condemned as corrupt and sectarian, broke out last October.

The protest movement forced then-Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign, but Lebanon's major political players remain in power or wield influence behind the scenes.

The negligence and possible corruption that allegedly led to the blast are not limited to the port or Customs authorities, critics state.

"Who will they try to scapegoat?" tweeted Lebanese writer Joey Ayoub.

Rima Majed, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut, said in a tweet: "What is happening to us in Lebanon is not an 'accident' and it is not 'unfortunate', it is a deliberate CRIME, one of the biggest in history, and it is ENRAGING!"

"This mafia, every single one of them, is responsible. They are responsible for making this country an open hell... We lost everything, we only have our rage left. Let our rage guide the coming days," Majed continued.

On Wednesday, protesters - many of them on the streets as part of volunteer efforts to clear the rubble - reportedly threw stones at a convoy carrying former Prime Minister Hariri.

Hariri's visit to the devastated port was perceived as, at best, a PR stunt and, at worst, an attempt to leverage the catastrophe to return to power.

"Don't you dare dream of it!" protesters shouted at the convoy, according to independent journalist Lara Bitar.

"This is a day for national vengeance," Bitar wrote on Twitter, seemingly capturing the national mood that, after years of corruption and financial mismanagement, has deemed the political class "irredeemable".

Looking at the destruction of the state electricity company's offices, residents speaking to Al Jazeera reporter Timour Azhari cheered. 

"People see this as an act of war by the political class on the people. There is so much anger," Azhari wrote on Twitter.

A protest is scheduled to take place in central Beirut on Wednesday evening. Some are calling for the government's immediate resignation.

Amnesty International has called for an indepedent international investigation into the blast, "free from any potential domestic political interference".

French prosecutors have also opened an investigation into the explosion after 21 French nationals were wounded.

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