Anger in Lebanon at political class after Beirut blast

Scepticism about willingness to deal with Hezbollah’s hegemony over security
Thursday 06/08/2020
Lebanese gather on a bridge overlooking the destroyed silo in the Beirut port on August 5. (AFP)
Lebanese gather on a bridge overlooking the destroyed silo in the Beirut port on August 5. (AFP)

BEIRUT– A deep, smouldering anger directed at the entire Lebanese political class, including officials and especially those directly responsible for Tuesday’s blast, has gripped the Lebanese capital. Fingers have been pointed at Hezbollah in particular, which is accused of investing in chaos, neglect and corruption to enhance its influence over state institutions and facilitate the smuggling of weapons, equipment and people into the country.

Pledges by officials to conduct transparent investigations and to hold those responsible accountable for their negligence have been met with widespread derision by the Lebanese street. Activists consider their move to place port officials under house arrest and officials’ promises of accountability to be aimed at defusing public anger, and believe they will soon be forgotten.

Initial investigations indicate that obvious negligence and laxity in storing a highly explosive material in the port of Beirut is the cause of the explosion that killed more than 130 people. Angry citizens and social media activists have been sharing the trending hashtag in Arabic "#Erect the Gallows," demanding that all officials be held accountable.

Various sources revealed that the materials in the warehouse were confiscated years ago from a ship which had broken down at Beirut port. They were simply placed in Warehouse 12 and there was no “proper follow-up."

The local OTV TV channel quoted Hassan Koraytem , general manager of Beirut Port, as saying that the port had six years ago and by order of the court stored highly explosive materials believed to have been the cause of the powerful explosion that shook the Lebanese capital.

The channel quoted Koraytem as telling it that customs and state security had asked authorities to export or remove these materials, but "nothing happened." A port employee said that an inspection team had examined the explosive materials six months ago and warned that these materials could “blow up Beirut” if they were not removed from the port.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years in a “dangerous” warehouse.

Ammonium nitrate has been the cause of many tragedies -- accidental and criminal --across the globe. In 2001, this same chemical caused the explosion of the AZF factory in the French city of Toulouse, killing 30 people.

Ammonium nitrate can also be used in the manufacture of explosive devices. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a two-ton canister of fertiliser in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

Lebanese officials have called for “serious accountability” to find out who was responsible for the explosion. President Michel Aoun said that an investigation will reveal the circumstances of what happened as soon as possible, and pledged to transparently disclose the results.

For his part, Diab confirmed in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “the investigations have started and all officials will be held accountable."

In a move described as seeking to absorb public anger, the Lebanese government requested the imposition of “house arrest” on all those involved in the case of storing the ammonium nitrate at Beirut Port.

During a press conference reporting the decisions taken during an extraordinary cabinet meeting, Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said “The Supreme Military Authority is requested to place under house arrest anyone involved in managing the storing and guarding the ammonium, and in examining its documents” from the day of its arrival at Beirut Port in 2014 until the date of the explosion.

A two-week state of emergency was declared in Beirut, giving the army the authority to implement this order.

Abdel Samad stated that the Supreme Military Authority, i.e. the army, will immediately undertake the task of maintaining order and security in the capital. All other forces will be at its disposal, including the internal security forces, public security, state security, customs, port and airport forces and firefighters. She has not, however, made any reference to Hezbollah's weapons and militias that control Beirut.

In the same conference, Minister of Tourism and Social Affairs Ramzi Musharrafieh said that the government “doesn’t have yet a list of specific names of those who will be included in the house arrest.” But Minister of the Displaced Ghada Shraim said that “the house arrest measure will include everyone who had managed, stored, guarded and inspected the file of the explosive materials at the port since 2014.”

Lebanese observers believe that these measures cover the reality of the crisis in Beirut, at the heart of which is Hezbollah’s security hegemony. The party alone bears the responsibility for destructive explosions, whether by being the target of Israeli strikes or by creating a state of official negligence in the country. They indicated that neither the army nor the state security apparatus are able to penetrate the party's influence layers and investigate what is happening under its control. So none of them could have been able to take the decision to get rid of these dangerous explosives.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said on Wednesday that an investigation should be conducted into the Beirut port explosion with the cooperation of friends from abroad. He made these statements to reporters while inspecting the damage caused by the explosion.

“I’m ready to bear my responsibility, and everyone who has a hand in this matter must bear his responsibility and be held accountable,” Hariri added.

The Future Movement Party headed by Hariri said “there are serious suspicions surrounding the explosion at Beirut Port, its timing, context, location, how it happened and the inflammable materials that caused it.”

The party issued a statement following an online meeting of the Future Bloc in parliament demanding a thorough investigation with the help of foreign friends. It called on “the state with all of its institutions, presidencies and components, to conduct a transparent judicial and security investigation that is not subject to bargaining, denial, escaping from the truth and circumventing it, regardless of who is responsible.”

“We must seek international participation, and involve international experts and specialized committees capable of revealing the truth and achieve justice for Beirut and its people,” the statement said.

The explosion occurred just a few days before the International Special Tribunal for Lebanon was scheduled to issue on Friday its ruling in the case of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, himself a victim of a huge bomb targeting his convoy in central Beirut on February 14, 2005.

In its statement, the Future Movement raised questions about why there had been explosive materials in the port for years, who brought them to Lebanon, who authorised their seizure and why the security services have been silent about their presence.