Thousands take to the streets in Beirut to remember the 2020 explosion and demand justice, reports Shabbir Lakha
One year on from the horrific explosion in Beirut which killed over 214 people, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Beirut on Wednesday to demand justice
The whole of Beirut shut down for the memorial day. The march set off from Gemmayze to the site of the explosion at the port, led by families of the victims of the blast. The atmosphere was a melting pot of grief, rage and solidarity.
There were placards with pictures of victims, with slogans such as “my government are murderers”, and calling for justice. The chants included a tasteful mix of insults aimed at the new billionaire prime minister and other government officials, as well as regular outbreaks of “Thawra! (Revolution)”.
During the memorial for the families, some protesters gathered outside the Parliament and were heavily teargassed.
Following the memorial, the mass of protesters marched up to Martyr’s Square where they chanted and waved flags and banged on the metal facade of one of the buildings. The surrounding area had been blocked off by the army with barbed wire blockades.
Soon after there were teargas canisters being fired into the crowds and protesters were being pushed out of the square. Some of the better prepared protesters were equipped with gas masks and stood their ground.
But the heavy-handed dispersal of protesters only resulted in their anger being turned to the nearby police stations. The police station in Gemmayze had its barricades ripped off and was pelted with rocks while protesters were fighting with the police before being dispersed with teargas and possibly live ammunition.
Why people are angry
The deadly blast on 4 August 2020, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, was an example of the criminal negligence of Lebanon’s political class. High ranking government officials were warned repeatedly of the dangers of the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been callously stored at the port for years and did nothing about it.
A year later there is yet to be any accountability.
Following the blast, the Lebanese cabinet resigned and the Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepped down. Since then, the country has been without a government. Mustapha Adib and former PM Saad Hariri were successively designated as caretaker prime ministers and both failed to form a government.
Following Hariri’s resignation in July, Najib Mikati, one of the richest men in Lebanon with an estimated net worth of $2.5bn, a former prime minister and currently facing corruption charges, has been appointed the new caretaker prime minister.
Meanwhile, the country’s economic crisis has gone from bad to worse. The Lebanese lira has completely collapsed with an hourly-depreciating black market rate to exchange with US dollars; there is a severe petrol and electricity shortage; and food prices are rising rapidly.
All of this has meant that a huge proportion of Lebanon’s population has been plunged into poverty. The level of inequality is stark. In Beirut, a small city, the richest and the poorest live a stone’s throw away from each other.
While workers are stressed about making ends meet on their menial wages with rising costs, are living without electricity for prolonged periods and are fighting outside petrol stations, the middle class spend their days in yacht clubs or fancy malls, with easy access to petrol because they can afford to pay more.
That’s the middle class that has stayed in Lebanon - a large number of those who can afford to have packed up and left.
This is why there is so much anger.
The multi-faceted crisis is rooted in the country’s dysfunctional political system and the extremely corrupt politicians that have long ruled. The exacerbation of the crisis in the last year has also exposed the neo-colonialist boot Lebanon is kept under by France and the EU who are determined to ensure the country remains dependent on their aid. That’s why Macron and Merkel’s announcements of new aid packages will do little to alleviate the crisis.
The October 2019 uprising was a watershed moment with a sense of unity among the Lebanese people, independent of and breaking through sectarian and factional lines. But the deradicalisation of the movement, attempts to influence it from the West combined with the health crisis stalled the momentum of the struggle.
People are acutely aware that only fundamental change which removes the entire political class can solve the problem.
However, the movement for change has some serious challenges to grapple with: overcoming the demoralisation that has set in since October 2019, the sectarianism that keeps people divided, and avoiding imperialist interference.
Yesterday’s protests are the first major protests since 8 August 2020 immediately after the blast, and could hopefully mark the start of a concerted movement.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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