Beirut blast protests descend into riots as the enraged Lebanese demand justice

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - For a few hours on Saturday evening, Beirut’s Bustros Palace, which houses Lebanon’s foreign affairs ministry, witnessed collective euphoria. Chanting insults against Lebanese politicians, dozens of protesters stormed the historic ochre building, usually home to smartly dressed diplomats are seen milling around.

The angry crowd was spurred by their government’s apparent responsibility in a deadly blast at the Beirut port that killed 158 and wounded 6,000 on Tuesday, destroying the city centre and residential neighbourhoods.

Standing on the steps of the palace, protesters joyfully sang the Lebanese national anthem and received two soldiers who had come to inspect the situation with whistles and pro-army chants.

“We decided to come here to the ministry of foreign affairs because this belongs to the public,” retired brigadier general George Nader told the media, standing on the building’s steps and wearing a black t-shirt with the army’s insignia. “What belongs to the Lebanese people must return to them,” he told The National.

Behind him, two large red banners read: “Beirut is the capital of the revolution,” and “Beirut is a city without weapons,” in a reference to Hezbollah, the only Lebanese party that was allowed to keep its weapons at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Protesters chanted that President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah are “terrorists”, that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is a “thug”, and sang a vulgar song against former Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil, also the President’s son-in-law.

Shortly after, protesters also stormed the buildings of the Economy ministry, the Environment ministry, the Energy and Water ministry, as well as the association of Lebanese banks in downtown Beirut.

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard by a shattered window inside the Lebanese Banks Association which had been a target of enraged protestors. Bloomberg
Lebanese army soldiers stand guard by a shattered window inside the Lebanese Banks Association which had been a target of enraged protestors. Bloomberg

Retired soldiers have been active in protests in Beirut since last October, when the Lebanese took the streets in their hundreds of thousands to denounce the corruption of their leaders.

They are widely seen as responsible for the country in its worst-ever economic crisis that started last year. Protests petered out but were revived by Tuesday’s blast.

Though Lebanese authorities said that the explosion was due to the unsafe storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate for the past 6 years, contradictory rumours have circulated like wildfire.

Anti-Hezbollah Lebanese blame the Iran-backed group which has denied any involvement. President Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, said that the blast could have been caused by an “attack”.

Demonstrations turned violent shortly after they started mid-afternoon on Saturday. Local media reported that riot police fired live ammunition and several rounds of tear gas while protesters tried to break through barricades near Parliament, throwing rocks at the army and lighting small fires.

Protests earlier in the day were peaceful. Bloomberg
Protests earlier in the day were peaceful. Bloomberg

Dozens of people climbed into high-end offices and apartments damaged by the explosion, as well as in the city’s emblematic Al Amine mosque, to gain a better view of Martyr’s square.

One policeman, Tawfic Douaihy, died after rioters attacked him in a badly damaged hotel building in downtown Beirut, and 238 people were wounded during clashes with riot police, said the Lebanese Red Cross. Later in the evening, the Islamic Medical Association stated that 490 people were injured.

We’re trying to get into Parliament to get our country back

“We’re trying to get into Parliament to get our country back,” said one protester, Anthony Hobeich. “This Parliament is for the people, not for its corrupt members. After August 4, 2020, everything changed,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s deadly blast.

“I want all politicians here in Lebanon to die,” said Elie, as he threw rocks at the army.

According to local media, by early evening the army had pushed protesters out of the different ministries.

Earlier that afternoon, protesters hung life-size figures of politicians in makeshift nooses on Martyrs’ Square. Banners read: “we’ll get justice from your necks”, “resign or the noose” and “time for accountability”.

But for a brief moment protesters felt that they had taken control. “This is absolutely amazing,” said a woman who declined to be named as she walked through the entrance hall of Bustros Palace. “I’m so proud. The Lebanese people are united,” said Maha, another protester, visibly moved by the scene. “We are occupying a corrupt power.”

Louis, an activist and lawyer who declined to give his full name, told The National that the storming of government buildings had been planned 24 hours in advance.

The storming of government buildings was planned, according to one protester The National spoke to. Bloomberg
The storming of government buildings was planned, according to one protester The National spoke to. Bloomberg

“It’s a blitzkrieg. We came where they did not expect us,” he said. “It’s a quick and symbolic victory. I expect popular pressure to continue to increase until September 1, for the 100th anniversary of Greater Lebanon,” he said, referring to the state that was the predecessor of modern Lebanon.

Despite Tuesday’s violence, activists hope that members of the army and the police will sympathise with their cause and eventually join them.

With the devaluation of the Lebanese pound by about 80 per cent on the black market in the past year, a soldier’s salary is now only worth about $100 a month.

In a sign of potentially more divisions to come, firefighters refused to fire water cannon at protesters on Saturday. Local television Al Jadeed reported that they refused to take the order from the Internal Security Forces was because they had lost 10 colleagues in the blast earlier this week.

In a statement, Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud said that the city’s fire brigade was not allowed out, unless it was “to extinguish a fire.”

Updated: August 9, 2020 03:07 AM

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