The movement, however, has subsided toward the end of the year. The government took advantage of the pandemic to announce a lockdown nominally to protect public health, but in fact to quell the protests. At least for a time, they succeeded.
Blame for the Catastrophe
The explosion turned a terrible situation into a catastrophe. The immediate cause was the detonation caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrates stored at the port of Beirut; it created a huge crater of 140 meters in diameter, destroyed several neighborhoods, and caused destruction stretching several miles into the city. Entire blocks of buildings within a perimeter of a few miles from the port are uninhabitable because they are on the verge of collapse.
The Beirut explosion was equivalent to 1 to 2 kilotons of TNT. By comparison, the Hiroshima bomb in August 1945 exploded with an energy equivalent to 12-15 kilotons. The material damage amounts to billions of dollars – an estimate of 15 billion has been put forward by the authorities.
Ammonium nitrate should never have been stored in the middle of a city, and especially without any security measures. The presence of this extremely dangerous product was well known to port and state authorities. Lebanese security officials warned the Prime Minister and the Lebanese President at the end of July 2020 of the presence of the stockpile.
Hassan Kraytem, the CEO of the Committee for the Management and Operation of the Port of Beirut, admitted on a Lebanese television channel, that he knew “that these products were dangerous, but not that much.” For his part, the director of customs, Badri Daher, questioned by the Lebanese media if fireworks were stored nearby, replied simply “very likely, yes.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, all dominant political parties denied any knowledge and/or responsibility for storing the ammonium nitrate in the port. They are lying. The port and its management and customs inspection are controlled by people affiliated with the dominant actors of the Lebanese political system, in particular of the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal, Hezbollah and the Future Movement.
These are parties benefit from Lebanon’s political system, which is organized along sectarian lines with representation apportioned by religious sect. Positions in public institutions, especially its highest ones, also follow sectarian and partisan lines. The sectarian system in Lebanon (like sectarianism more generally) is one of the main instruments used by the country’s bourgeois parties to divide and rule the popular classes. These parties will do anything in their power to protect this political system.
The extent of their perfidy was demonstrated when President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah opposed any international investigation into the August 4 tragedy. They claimed they were defending Lebanese sovereignty. And, instead, they declared their preference for Lebanese army to conduct the investigation. But that army is dominated by these two sectarian political parties.
Clearly, Aoun, Nasrallah and all the rest want to protect themselves, their parties, and the whole set up from being found culpable for this criminal tragedy. Lebanese authorities, who promised that the first results of Army’s investigation would be released within a maximum of five days, but still now more than a week since the explosion there has been nothing announced.
The sectarian parties are also trying to block any independent and full judicial inquiry into the disaster. They, for example, prevented the appointment of Samer Younès, considered as an independent to oversee it. Instead, they handpicked a military judge, Fadi Sawan, to carry it out. Thus, the sectarian parties are guilty of what amounts to a cover up of their criminal responsibility for the disaster. They are doing so not only to protect their rule, but the entire sectarian system.
What Next for the Movement?
Even before the official end of Lebanon’s lockdown in mid-April, demonstrations had resumed in defiance of the government. Protesters across the country revived the slogans from October, denouncing the entire Lebanese sectarian and neoliberal system.
Demonstrators have targeted the banks in particular, ransacking several head offices and branches in different regions of the country. Some of these banks are controlled by the sectarian bourgeois political elites who have used them to dictates the country’s economic policy concentrate monumental profits in their hands. People targeted them because of their role in the country’s current economic crisis and allowing the big financiers to smuggle their money out of the country.
The explosion forced people to turn from protest to mutual aid. They built solidarity between the popular classes across sectarian, national and racial divisions. Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians and migrant laborers from sub-Saharan Africa came to each other’s assistance, opening their houses to those who had lost theirs, collaborating on clearing the streets of rubble, and providing food assistance to one another.
And then these masses poured into the streets in protests. On the weekend of August 8 and 9, massive demonstrations took place in Beirut to demand justice against those responsible for the criminal tragedy and the overthrow of all political parties in the ruling system without exception. Protesters stormed and occupied public institutions such as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Economy, Environment and Energy, as well as the Association of Banks in Lebanon.
In Beirut’s central square, Martyrs Square, the main slogan was “Judgment Day.” People built wooden guillotines. The hashtag #HangThem has been circulating for several days on social networks. The demonstrators chanted, “Revenge, revenge, until the fall of the regime.”
Terrified of the mass upsurge, the Lebanese army and militias linked to the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Nabih Berri and other sectarian parties violently cracked down on protesters. They went so far as to fire live ammunition on protesters in Beirut. There have been several hundred injured and dozens of arrests.
But the country’s rulers knew that repression would not be enough. So they orchestrated the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government, on August 10, the day after the massive popular protests. They hoped to placate the protesters with promises of a new united national government and early elections. But so far, it has not worked as demonstrations continue throughout the country.