Outrage at the Lebanese government boiled over on the streets of Beirut today as French President Emmanuel walked through a devastated neighbourhood, pledging support and demanding reform from the country’s under-fire leadership.
“The people want to bring down the regime," furious residents yelled as Macron, the first international leader to arrive in the wake of Tuesday’s colossal explosions, visited the hard-hit Gemmayze district, where Lebanon’s leaders have been conspicuously absent since the blasts.
Desperate locals begged the French leader for help, and hurled insults at Lebanon’s political leaders, chanting “revolution” and other slogans used during recent mass demonstrations.
Fury at the Lebanese government has been mounting in the wake of Tuesday’s explosions, amid an ineffectual response to the crisis and growing revelations that officials knew of the risks posed by a huge, unsecured stockpile of a highly explosive chemical, but repeatedly failed to act.
As the country searches for answers as to exactly how the catastrophe occurred, it’s emerged that the risks posed by the 2,750 ton stash of ammonium nitrate, which arrived in Beirut on a Russian-owned vessel in 2013, were repeatedly raised, but never acted on by Lebanese officials.
Lebanese Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad Najd said yesterday that documents dating back to 2014 showed discussions about the substance, while the director-general of Lebanese Customs, Badri Daher, said he repeatedly warned of the "extreme danger" that it posed. Reuters quoted an anonymous source that inspectors had warned only six month ago that the stockpile could “blow up all of Beirut” if it wasn’t moved.
The stockpile blew up in massive explosions Tuesday evening that destroyed large parts of the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, wounding 5,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
The growing evidence of mismanagement by Lebanese authorities, already widely condemned for their incompetence and corruption, and there has further crystallised public anger at the government in recent days. A hashtag reading “hang up the nooses” trended on Lebanese social media, while Ramez El Kadi, an anchor at Al Jadeed television, tweeted Wednesday: "Either they keep killing us or we kill them,” adding that officials implicated in the disaster should “sleep in prison.”
“There’s a growing wave of public anger,” British-Lebanese analyst Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank, told VICE News.
“People are already demanding the resignation of the government… but it’s a government that operates on the basis of impunity,” she said.
The government has promised a full investigation into the blast and vowed to hold those responsible to account, ordering a number of port officials to be put under house arrest.
But Khatib said that, rather than demonstrating accountability, officials were already pointing the finger at one another. “The government is already trying to absolve itself of responsibility, with different entities blaming one another,” she said.
Daher, the director-general of Lebanese Customs, blamed the country’s judges Wednesday, telling broadcaster LBCI that the judiciary had failed to heed six warnings to act on the dangerous stockpile.
Meanwhile Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told Al Jazeera that he had only found out about the presence of the ammonium nitrate 11 days before the explosion, and had asked the general manager of the port to send him documents on the subject on Monday. He claimed the judiciary, the port authority – and possibly security forces – were to blame for the disaster.
It has emerged that the huge shipment of chemicals arrived in Beirut via a Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged ship, the MV Rhosus, that set off from Georgia for Mozambique in 2013. The ship made a stop in Beirut in September 2013, according to a CNN report, where it was detained by port authorities due to “gross violations in operating a vessel,” unpaid port fees, and complaints filed by the crew.
By 2014, the impounded cargo had been unloaded and stored at Hangar 12 at the port, posing a significant safety hazard that was never addressed.
Amid concerns of a potential whitewash that will shield the powerful and leave Lebanon’s corrupt governance unchanged, international actors have urged the country’s leaders to embrace accountability and reform. Touching down in Beirut today with promises to help organise an international response to the disaster, Macron told his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun that his government needed to make reforms and eliminate corruption.
“If these reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer,” he said, before pledging to angry protesters in Gemmayze that “aid will not go to corrupt hands.”
“I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact,” he said. “I am here today to propose a new political pact to them.”
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch called today for Lebanon to invite international experts to conduct a thorough independent investigation into the disaster.
“The level of devastation in Beirut is incomprehensible, and the responsible authorities should be held accountable,” Aya Majzoub, the organisation’s Lebanon researcher said in a statement.
“Given the Lebanese authorities’ repeated failure to investigate serious government failings and the public’s distrust of government institutions, an independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve.”