Police fire tear gas at Lebanese protesting government in aftermath of Beirut explosion

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Security forces fire tear gas at demonstrators during a protest near the parliament in Beirut on August 8, 2020.
Security forces fire tear gas at demonstrators during a protest near the parliament in Beirut on August 8, 2020. © Thaier Al-Sudani, Reuters

Lebanese riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators trying to break through a barrier to get to the parliament building in central Beirut on Saturday as new protests erupted against the political leadership blamed for a massive explosion that killed more than 150 people in the capital this week.

A fire at Beirut port on Tuesday ignited a stock of ammonium nitrate and triggered an explosion that was felt in neighbouring countries and destroyed entire sections of the city.

The blast killed more than 150 people and injured 5,000 while leaving more than a quarter of a million people without homes. Spectacular videos of the disaster show a mushroom-shaped shockwave that swept from the port through the city.

According to the health ministry, more than 60 people are still missing.

“After three days of cleaning, removing rubble and licking our wounds … it is time to let our anger explode and punish them,” said Fares Halabi, a 28-year-old activist.

Thousands of people poured into Beirut’s main square, where they set up symbolic nooses to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blame for Tuesday’s explosion at the Port of Beirut.

The lack of political change combined with a stinging economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic all but snuffed out the revolutionary movement – until this week.

Anger is the main sentiment amongst Beirut protesters five days after explosion

“Today is the first demonstration since the explosion, an explosion in which any one of us could have died,” said Hayat Nazer, an activist who has contributed to solidarity initiatives for blast victims.

“This is the biggest warning for everyone now that we don’t have anything to lose anymore. Everyone should be in the streets today, everyone,” she told AFP.

>> ‘Beirut is destroyed, my heart is broken’: Locals in despair over Lebanon blast

International aid 

Two days after a landmark visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, diplomatic activity was intensifying to organise international support for the disaster-hit country ahead of a Sunday aid conference to be co-hosted by Macron and the United Nations. The Arab League has also pledged support.

Three senior diplomats were in Beirut Saturday in a show of solidarity with the disaster-hit city, where 300,000 people were made temporarily homeless by the port explosion.

The first to meet top officials was Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was also expected as was the president of the European Council, Charles Michel.

‘Major protests’ expected in Beirut Saturday amid residents’ anger over port-area explosion

The president and prime minister of Lebanon have promised a government investigation but, more than a mere case of negligence, many Lebanese see the blast as a direct result of high-level corruption. Few Lebanese trust that the leadership would incriminate its own in an investigation chaired by some of the country’s top officials.

Aoun, however, has rejected calls for an international independent investigation into the blast.

A total of 21 people have been detained so far, including Badri Daher, director-general of Lebanon’s customs authority.

>> The strange history of the chemical cargo that caused the Beirut blast

‘Wake-up call’

Lebanon defaulted on its debt earlier this year and the current leadership has so far consistently failed to address the economic emergency and agree on an international rescue package despite intense Western pressure.

Analyst Nasser Yassin, of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, said Lebanon’s leaders were clearly seeking to take advantage of the situation.

“The fear is that the authorities will benefit from this great disaster and from the international and Arab attention they are getting,” he said.

Activist Hayat Nazer said the current crisis should not turn into a chance for the political elite to get a new lease of life but instead give fresh impetus to a drive for change.

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“I think it’s the last wake-up call for people,” she said.

“We need to save each other, we need to clean our country, to rebuild it, and to completely disregard that we have politicians,” Nazer said.

“It’s not just about protesting in the streets. We can make a change on a daily basis, the revolution is part of our lives, we can apply it every day.”