Home featured After Beirut Explosion, Protests Erupt as Lebanon’s Anger Boils Over

After Beirut Explosion, Protests Erupt as Lebanon’s Anger Boils Over

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Clashes between demonstrators and security forces broke out near Lebanon’s Parliament on Saturday at a protest fueled by the vast public anger over the death and destruction caused by a huge explosion in Beirut’s port this week.

Many Lebanese see the blast, which sent a shock wave through the capital that destroyed entire neighborhoods and killed at least 145 people, as the latest and most dangerous manifestation of the corruption and negligence of the country’s political elite.

Clashes erupted midafternoon near the Parliament building, where demonstrators pulled down large concrete barriers and threw rocks at the security forces, who fired volleys of tear gas to push the protesters from the area. Large crowds also gathered to demonstrate in the central Martyrs’ Square nearby, where protests demanding the removal of the country’s top politicians have flared since last fall.

“Haven’t they quenched their thirst for blood? We came here peacefully, and they do this?” said Rasha Habbal, a 21-year-old student who had come to protest with her 57-year-old mother. Both had been tear-gassed.

“Either they go and we stay, or they stay and we leave,” Ms. Habbal said of the country’s leaders.

Lebanon was already grappling with an array of crises before this week’s explosion. Protests against the political class have continued to flare as the economy has sunk, banks have refused to give depositors access to their money and unemployment and inflation have soared.

Anger at Lebanon’s political class has been building since last fall, when protests toppled a prime minister, but the explosion, and indications that it was rooted in governmental neglect, have pushed tensions to the boiling point.

Lebanese officials have said the explosion on Tuesday happened when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound often used to make fertilizer and bombs, suddenly combusted, perhaps because of a fire started by welders working nearby. The industrial chemical had been stored in the port since 2014.

In addition to the dead, the blast injured 5,000 people and pushed at least 250,000 from their homes. The prime minister has vowed to investigate the blast and hold all those who were behind it accountable, but Lebanese remain skeptical that justice will be done.

ImageA resident checking his car, destroyed in the blast.
Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

President Michel Aoun on Friday said the blast could have been caused by a bomb or “foreign interference,” without providing further detail or evidence. In a televised speech, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, the powerful militant group and political party, denied his group had any connection to the chemicals or the blast.

Many Lebanese accuse Hezbollah of using the port to smuggle and store weapons and have suggested that the group would have wanted access to the chemicals to make bombs. But no evidence has surfaced linking the group to the chemicals or the explosion.

While government assistance to the victims has been minimal, foreign aid for the victims has streamed in, along with technicians and medics who are helping identify buildings at risk of collapsing and treat the wounded.

The office of President Emmanuel Macron of France announced that an international aid summit will be held by video conference on Sunday, co-hosted by France and the United Nations. Mr. Macron was the first foreign leader to visit Lebanon since the blast, and he walked through some of the hardest hit areas to speak with residents, something that Lebanon’s own president and prime minister have not done, likely to avoid becoming the targets of public anger.

The United States is providing more than $15 million in aid, and President Trump said on Friday that he would join Sunday’s videoconference.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the head of the Arab League, said on Saturday that he would seek to mobilize support from Arab countries after meeting with President Aoun.

“We are ready to help with all our means,” Mr. Aboul Gheit said.

Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

In recent weeks, the number of coronavirus cases reported daily had begun to spike and many parts of the country were suffering from lengthy power cuts.

Despite drawing large numbers of people, the protest movement has so far failed to make significant progress toward putting a new ruling system in place.

Many of the country’s top politicians and party leaders are former militia commanders from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, and Lebanese accuse them of looting the country while failing to ensure basic services, like regular electricity and drinkable water.

“It had become clear that this regime could not deliver, but now it has become clear that it can kill and obliterate an entire neighborhood,” said Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “The question to me is, is this going to be a game changer, and what does it mean to have a game changer?”

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