Distrustful of system, angry Lebanese call for international probe

Incompetence and corruption of a ruling class dominated by Hezbollah is openly blamed for the carnage on August 4.
Saturday 08/08/2020
Men attach the Lebanese flag on a building following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 7. (REUTERS)
Men attach the Lebanese flag on a building following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 7. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT--“Please save us… We want French mandate back… Lebanon is held hostage by its corrupt leaders…” The distress calls shouted at visiting French President Emmanuel Macron as he toured Beirut’s bomb blasted streets reflected the Lebanese people’s total estrangement with the country’s ruling class.

People were boiling in anger as they helped clear the streets of debris from buildings pulverised by the massive explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at Beirut’s port. More than 150 people were killed,around 5,000 wounded and some 300,000 became homeless.

Incompetence and corruption of a ruling class dominated by Hezbollah is openly blamed for the carnage on August 4.

“We want to have them hanged in the port. They should be toppled… all of them from the president all the way down,” shouted a young man while holding a broom in Gemayze, an old neighbourhood with many traditional houses.

People called for an international investigation to expose and hold accountable those responsible for storing the highly explosive substance in the heart of Beirut since 2014. They were backed by Macron who rushed to Beirut to express France’s solidarity with Lebanon.

“The Lebanese are asking for an international investigation because they have no confidence whatsoever in the Lebanese judicial system,” says journalist and political activist Rami Rayess. “Previous calamities investigated in Lebanon never reached a conclusion, not a single person was convicted or punished and no truths revealed.”

“Lebanon is way behind having an independent judiciary.  Any local investigation will be manipulated to cover up the truth and the culprits to evade punishment. In any other country a catastrophe of this caliber would lead to the resignation of the president and the government,” Rayess added.

The government announced that an investigating committee had been set up and given four days to determine responsibility for the devastating explosion despite little trust from the people and relatives of the blast’s victims who have been calling for foreign investigators.

While the cause of the blast is still unclear, the public hold responsible the politicians who have ruled Lebanon for decades.

“All parties should bear responsibilities since they have been in power for years, but we should bear in mind that certain parties have dominated the state, monopolised political decisions and obstructed the application of the constitution. These must bear a bigger responsibility and blame,” Rayess said in reference to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies the Shia Amal movement of Speaker Nabih Berri and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun.

“It is clear that the state and the public institutions are rotten and incompetent because of clientelism exercised by all the political parties. They are to blame regardless of how and what triggered the blast,” said political analyst Johnny Mnayar.

“The most important questions for which we need answers are why 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate is stored in a warehouse at Beirut’s port and why they were kept there for so many years. Is it negligence and corruption or are there other reasons?”

Mnayar downplayed speculation that the blast might have been caused by an Israeli attack targeting Hezbollah weapons.

“We know that Hezbollah uses the port to bring in arms and ammunition but I really doubt that they would keep them in a warehouse at the port. And even if we suppose that Israel did it, it would do it in a discreet way not openly,” he said.

During his snap visit Macron appears to have admonished Lebanese leaders who have failed to introduce badly-needed reforms, brought Lebanon to the brink of total economic collapse and caused its international and Arab isolation.

Members of the Lebanese civil society carrying brooms used for clearing debris, walk past a wall painting depicting a hanged politician and reading (death sentence in Arabic) in the partially damaged Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael on August 7. (AFP)
Members of the Lebanese civil society carrying brooms used for clearing debris, walk past a wall painting depicting a hanged politician and reading (death sentence in Arabic) in the partially damaged Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael on August 7. (AFP)

The French president took a tough tone on the reforms he said were the only thing holding back a massive aid package that could put the ailing country back in the saddle.

Speaking in the presence of representatives of political parties including Hezbollah, Macron called for “political change” in Lebanon and a new “political contract” among the Lebanese.

Macron’s words carried an implicit warning that Lebanon would sink further under the current ruling class and Iranian hegemony through Hezbollah.

“It was the first time that a foreign president meets a Hezbollah official. Obviously Macron who is speaking on behalf of Europe and the United States is seeking to appease tensions and prevent an internal confrontation in Lebanon,” Mnayar said.

“No doubt that the situation is very sensitive and all parties are cornered especially Michel Aoun who has lost the support of his Christian community and Hezbollah who has lost the Christian cover,” Mnayar said, adding that “post August 4 ushered in a new phase in Lebanon.”