Anti-government protests grow in Beirut days after deadly explosion
TORONTO -- Anti-government protests flared in Beirut nearly three days after a massive explosion rocked the Lebanese capital, killing nearly 150 people and wounding thousands more, exacerbating the country’s ongoing economic crisis and growing unrest.
Before the blast, apparently caused by the ignition of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port, the country was mired in a severe economic crisis that was widely blamed on the country’s political system.
In the past year, a breakdown in the country’s banking system, skyrocketing inflation, and growing unemployed have triggered mass protests across the country. Now, with some 300,000-people unable to return to their homes due to the explosion and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, experts say tensions are at an all-time high.
“A lot of people cannot understand that there seems to be a bottomless pit of despair,” Ruby Dagher, professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of international development and global studies, told CTV’s Your Morning Friday.
“They want their human rights. They want to be able to live, to survive, to eat, to have access to social services. They’re asking for a change in governance.”
Lebanon has been dominated by the same political elites for decades, many of them former warlords and militia commanders from the 1975-1990 civil war.
Experts say the ruling parties use public institutions to accumulate wealth and distribute patronage to supporters. Power outages are still frequent, trash often goes uncollected and tap water is largely undrinkable in the country.
Before the explosion, Lebanon’s currency plummeted to record lows, losing more than 80 per cent of its value since October 2019, wiping out many people’s savings. The nation’s debt levels are some of the highest in the world, it’s credit rating at the lowest rank, on par with Venezuela.
Prior to the pandemic, the World Bank projected that 45 per cent of people in Lebanon would be below the poverty line in 2020.
“After the civil war, we tried to reconstruct the economy. Unfortunately, what we ended up doing was establishing a system which was very much import-based and it decimated the manufacturing capacity of most of Lebanon,” Dagher explained.
The country relied heavily on both the financial sector and tourism to boost the economy, but Dagher says security concerns and government corruption prevented growth in both sectors.
“Even before the demonstrations started, most of the middle class was decimated,” she said.
Dagher warns the only way Lebanon can recover is with a change in governance.
“We have a legitimacy crisis in [Lebanon], not only of the politicians, but the state structure itself. The people are asking to help rebuild a state that actually helps them — that gives them social services and implements public policy for the benefit of the Lebanese in general,” she said.
“We really need to get to a point where the state works for the population and represents the population.”
The government has now launched an investigation into the port explosion under mounting criticism, with many Lebanese blaming the catastrophe on negligence and corruption. Sixteen employees have been detained and others questioned, with the bulk of the investigation focused on port and customs officials.
The UN human rights office has called for an independent investigation, insisting "victims' calls for accountability must be heard."
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Lebanon is facing the "triple tragedy of the socio-economic crisis, COVID-19 and the ammonium nitrate explosion,” and urged Lebanese leaders to "overcome political stalemates and address the grievances of the population."
- With files from The Associated Press