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Lebanon: Beirut blast deals fresh blow to a government struggling with popular discontent

People clean an apartment damaged in the Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive explosion in the capital's port.
People clean an apartment damaged in the Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive explosion in the capital's port. © Patrick Baz, AFP
19 min

The devastating blast that struck the heart of the Lebanese capital has dealt a fresh blow to the country's fragile government, already under fire for alleged financial mismanagement that has led the country to the brink of economic collapse. What lasting political consequences is the blast likely to have?

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The colossal explosion that devastated Beirut's port and gutted entire neighbourhoods of the Lebanese capital deals a fresh blow to an already fragile and deeply unpopular government. The blast killed more than 150 people and injured 5,000 while leaving more than a quarter of a million people without homes.

Lebanon's ruling elite was already under enormous pressure from a protest movement that rejects it as inept, corrupt and beholden to the country's myriad sectarian groups rather than the national interest.

Battling runaway inflation, mass unemployment and rising poverty, the government is struggling. Many have seen their life savings simply evaporate. And despite weeks of talks, the cabinet failed to reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund on a rescue package after Lebanon defaulted on its debt earlier this year.

Lebanese security forces on Thursday fired tear gas at dozens of anti-government demonstrators angered by the devastation in Beirut and more protests were set for Saturday.

With public anger now at the boiling point over the epic destruction caused by a disaster blamed on governmental negligence, what will be the political impact for a country already suffering its worst-ever economic crisis?

>> ‘We've got nothing’: Millions in Lebanon struggle with cost of living amid economic collapse

Ahmed Bayram of Save the Children warned that a humanitarian crisis was unfolding as a result of the blast in an interview with FRANCE 24.

 

Beirut explosion : UN warns of possible humanitarian crisis in wake of blast
05:49

 

A disaster resulting from 'business as usual'?

Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government, billed as a technocratic line-up when it was formed in January, is seen as subservient to the party of President Michel Aoun and his Hezbollah political allies.

This week Nassif Hitti resigned as foreign minister to protest a lack of willingness to tackle much-needed reforms, warning that Lebanon risked becoming a "failed state".

Security officials told AFP that huge quantities of highly explosive ammonium nitrate had been stored for years in a rundown warehouse and that the hazard was known to the authorities.

"The catastrophe, while exceptionally severe, is the result of business as usual in Lebanon," Faysal Itani, a deputy director at the Center for Global Policy, wrote in The New York Times.

"There is a pervasive culture of negligence, petty corruption and blame-shifting endemic to the Lebanese bureaucracy, all overseen by a political class defined by its incompetence and contempt for the public good."

"Irrespective of how this explosion came to happen there is absolute criminal neglect," said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

'Major protests' expected in Beirut Saturday amid residents' anger over port-area explosion
03:41

Lebanon's Kataeb Party, a Christian group that opposes the Hezbollah-backed government, announced Saturday that its three lawmakers would resign from parliament. The announcement was made during the funeral of a leading Kataeb member who died in the port explosion.

But in the larger context of extreme geopolitical polarisation in the region – notably between the United States and Iran – the beleaguered government's global sponsors might seek to preserve it at all costs.

"Despite popular anger ... a resignation still seems unlikely just now because there is no clear alternative," said Karim Bitar, a professor of international relations in Paris and Beirut.

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

Protesters vow to keep fighting 

An unprecedented nationwide and cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted on October 17 had looked at one stage like it could topple the hereditary ruling elite.

The euphoria faded, however, as substantive change failed to materialise and the combination of economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic left any nascent revolution in tatters.

Professot Bitar predicted that Tuesday's tragedy might give the protest camp "a second wind".

"The Lebanese will be more determined than ever to make a political class, which is corrupt to the bone, accountable," he said.

But the Carnegie center's Yahya argued that many among the protest camp could also see the port blast as the final straw that convinces them to leave the country for good, choosing to join Lebanon's massive diaspora instead of fighting for change at home. 

The government announced a two-week state of emergency with immediate effect on Wednesday, which could also foil any plans for mass protests in the short term.

International aid workers sift through Beirut debris
01:34

Hezbollah on the defensive

The Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah, a dominant political player in Lebanon, has appealed for unity, describing the explosion as "a major tragedy". The group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, categorically denied that Hezbollah stored arms at the port.

But some note that Hezbollah's influence on the running of the port is well known to the public and the disaster could reflect badly on the organisation. "They will also be held accountable because they are part and parcel of the governing system," said Yahya.

Strangled by US sanctions, the Shiite movement is also bracing for the upcoming verdict in the trial over the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri in a bomb blast. The main suspects are alleged Hezbollah members and a guilty verdict could increase pressure on the group both at home – heightened tensions between Hezbollah and Hariri supporters are one likely result – and abroad. The United States and many other Western countries, including Germany and Britain, already categorise Hezbollah as a "terrorist" group. 

The special tribunal in The Hague handling the case announced on Wednesday it would be postponing the verdict, initially set for Friday, to August 18 as a result of the Beirut port blast. 

Lebanon's information minister, Manal Abdel Samad, became the first political casualty of the explosions when she resigned on Sunday, apologising to the Lebanese people. 

"After the enormous Beirut catastrophe, I announce my resignation from government," she said in a statement carried by local media.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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