Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to try to push back thousands of angry protesters who were demanding that the government “resign or hang.”
Lebanese protesters stormed several ministries and government offices Saturday in apparently planned raids after an explosion blamed on government negligence at Beirut port devastated the city and ignited unprecedented popular rage.
The day started with funerals for some of the 158 people killed by Tuesday’s monster blast but turned to rage when the largest anti-government protest in months escalated.
With security forces focused on a large gathering at the Martyrs’ Square protest hub, a group led by retired army officers snuck into the foreign ministry and declared the building a “headquarters of the revolution”.
With nearly 160 dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands of people made homeless by the blast, it’s hard to see how the government maintains any legitimacy at all.
Activists who called for the protest set up symbolic nooses at Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence they blame for Tuesday’s blast.
“Resignation or hang,” read a banner held by protesters, who also planned to hold a symbolic funeral for the dead.
Khodr Ghadir, 23, said the noose was for everyone who has been in power for the last 30 years. “What happened was a spark for people to return to the streets.”
The incompetence of authorities who did nothing for six years while several thousand tons of explosive ammonium nitrate sat in an unguarded warehouse is only part of the story. The reason for the tragedy has been apparent to the Lebanese people since the beginning even if they didn’t have all the facts — the rampant corruption of the government.
The corruption of Middle Eastern governments is a given. Companies doing business there factor in the cost of bribes and kickbacks. But Lebanon’s corruption is on an epic scale.
But how ever one looks at it, the huge explosion on Tuesday is the result of the dire corruption within numerous Lebanese governments. For years, politicians from all parties and factions have looted the country and driven it to ruin. Even politicians on opposing sides have joined together in this corrupt system to enrich themselves — when it came to lining their own pockets, they were always in agreement.
This catastrophe is just the most recent and most horrifying example of how one Lebanese government after the other has failed to fulfill its most basic tasks: looking after the citizens’ welfare and well-being. For years, electricity has gone off for several hours a day. Why? Because the so-called generator mafia — rich businesspeople who either come from politics or are closely associated with it — profits when people have to pay for additional power.
The musical chair governments that have been part of Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war in 1989 are all in on the corruption. Part of the problem is the sectarian political arrangement that gives Sunni Muslims the prime ministership, Christians the presidency, and Shiites the speakership of Parliament. When things got too hot for the government, ministers would switch chairs, reforms would be promised, and the anger would abate.
That’s not going to happen this time. Lebanon’s financial crisis predates the explosion and its worthless currency is only a symptom of the real problem. The people’s fury at the banking system is the result of years of corrupt cronyism where bankers have manipulated the nation’s currency to enrich the powerful. Banks have been the main target of the protesters’ fury, but it’s moneymen all over the Middle East who have used Lebanon’s banking system for their own aggrandizement.
As angry as the people have become, not much will happen because of peaceful protests. That’s because the real power in Lebanon rests with armed Hezbollah militias. It is they who have the guns after all other factions disarmed following the Civil War. Hezbollah is allowing the police and army to perform the distasteful task of trying to keep order as the protests grow. Meanwhile, the militants keep their hands clean and avoid people’s rage as much as possible.
The terrorists have kept an extremely low profile post-explosion. They have denied that the explosion site was an ammunition dump and have also denied having anything to do with it. Conspiracy theorists say otherwise but it doesn’t matter. They don’t care what anyone thinks about them.
Aside from that, they’ve offered condolences for the families but made no comment about government responsibility. Hezbollah isn’t going to undermine their own government by pointing fingers.
The protests won’t die down anytime soon but what the people most desire — fundamental, systemic change — is beyond the abilities of the elites to manage.