Two days after much of Beirut was damaged by a colossal explosion blamed on the negligence of a corrupt Lebanese government, furious residents were tear gassed by security forces on the streets of their ruined city late last night.
The use of force against protesters by Lebanese security forces, who have been widely condemned for their lacklustre disaster relief efforts, fuelled further outrage at the country’s authorities. Aya Majzoub, a Beirut-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the police actions were another damning indictment on the priorities of the country’s leaders.
“It’s mind-boggling,” she told VICE News. “In the midst of such a national tragedy, is that really the priority for security forces? Why are they gassing protesters who have just undergone a traumatic experience, rather than using their resources to assist with the disaster relief effort?”
The clashes occurred late on Thursday near the country’s parliament, as police pushed back dozens of protesters attempting to advance on the blast-damaged building. Protesters lit a fire, vandalised stores and lobbed stones at security forces, who responded by firing tear gas to disperse the crowd, resulting in some injuries, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported.
Majzoub said politicians weren’t present at the parliament building, which had been damaged by Tuesday’s blast, and that the use of force was unwarranted. “There was nothing the protesters could have done to further vandalise the building that hadn’t already been done by the blast,” she said. “It just shows a callous disregard for the… population.”
Public anger towards Lebanon’s ruling elite was already high, as the country grappled with a catastrophic economic crisis and a surging coronavirus outbreak, manifesting in regular fiery protests. But the country has erupted in outrage in the wake of Tuesday’s devastating explosion at Beirut’s port, the biggest in the city’s history, which killed at least 137 people, wounded at least 5,000 others, and damaged half the capital.
The apocalyptic devastation – including the wholesale destruction of the port, the lifeline of the import-dependent country – has created a “crisis on crises” that Bachir Ayoub, Oxfam’s Lebanon policy lead, said would take years to recover from.
“Lebanon was already struggling to cope. The economy has been in a tailspin, the local currency has lost approximately 80 percent of its value,” he said in a statement. “People whose homes have been damaged or completely destroyed will not be able to access their money to start to repair or rebuild, and essential items like wheat and medicine will soon be scarce.”
For many Lebanese, the disaster – caused when a fire ignited a 2,750 ton stockpile of highly explosive ammonium nitrate which had been negligently stored at the port for years, despite repeated warnings – is the ultimate indictment of the incompetence of its government. Majzoub said that fury has only been compounded by the government’s “complete lack of presence on the ground” in disaster relief efforts, which had been overwhelmingly driven by the community.
While the response from the public to the disaster had been “incredible,” she said that the government and security forces had been conspicuously absent from leading recovery efforts.
Initiatives to find shelter for the estimated 300,000 Beirutis whose homes were damaged by the blast have been led by the public, while the government has failed to provide information about the health risks of inhaling smoke and dust from the chemical explosion.
“What is the army doing, what are the security forces doing?” Majzoub said. “They have the manpower, resources, equipment, and logistical structure to organise and lead a disaster relief effort. Why are they not there?”
The scenes of security forces firing tear gas at protesters, circulated on social media, appeared to only fuel public anger further. On Twitter, one commenter wrote of the clashes: “I’m in awe at how ‘security forces’ in Lebanon continue to brutalise protestors in Beirut with tear gas while everyone is still reeling from the trauma of the city’s destruction, absolutely appalling. They deserve to hang alongside every politician.”
Lebanon’s ambassador to Jordan, Tracy Chamoun, also resigned her post in protest Thursday, condemning “state negligence, theft and lying” and calling for the removal of the country’s leaders.
“This disaster rang a bell: we should not show any of them mercy and they all must go,” she said.
The widespread anger appears set to be channelled into major protests, with activists calling for a large anti-government demonstration on Saturday titled "Hang them [from] the gallows." Images of nooses are being stencilled on buildings around the city, while on the streets and social media, furious residents are calling for revolution and demanding the removal of the political class.
“There’s rage on the streets of Beirut that I can’t put into words,” said Majzoub.
“There is so much anger – how was this allowed to happen? People are just shocked, shocked! They view it as a war with the ruling elite – they want to see the entire political class eliminated.”