Clashes erupt in Beirut at blast protest as Lebanon’s anger boils over

By Ben Hubbard and Mona El-Naggar

Violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces transformed much of central Beirut into a battle zone of flying rocks, swinging batons and clouds of tear gas Saturday as the fury over a huge explosion in Beirut’s port Tuesday fueled attacks on government buildings.

By nightfall, angry protesters demanding the ouster of the country’s political elite had stormed three government ministries, a handful of legislators had resigned, and the prime minister had called for early elections — the first major signs that the blast could shake up the country’s political system, widely derided as dysfunctional.

Many Lebanese considered the blast, which sent a shock wave through the capital that destroyed entire neighborhoods and killed at least 154 people, as only the latest and most dangerous manifestation of the corruption and negligence of the country’s leaders.

The clashes Saturday erupted across broad swaths of the city’s center, with demonstrators yanking down barricades blocking access to Parliament, chanting, “Revolution! Revolution!” and throwing rocks at security forces, who flooded the area with tear gas and fired rubber bullets. Fires burned in nearby buildings, filling the sky with smoke, and sirens screamed as ambulances rushed the scores of people injured in the clashes to hospitals.

“Haven’t they quenched their thirst for blood? We came here peacefully, and they do this?” Rasha Habbal, a 21-year-old student who had come to protest with her 57-year-old mother, said of security forces. Both women had been tear-gassed.

“Either they go and we stay, or they stay and we leave,” Habbal said of the country’s leaders.

Elsewhere in the city, about 200 protesters, including a group of retired military officers, took over the Foreign Ministry building for a number of hours. They hung red banners with a raised fist from the building, which had been damaged in the blast, and proclaimed Beirut a “disarmed” city. The group left the building after the army arrived.

Throughout the day, many thousands of people gathered to demonstrate in the central Martyrs’ Square, which is not far from the blast site and is surrounded by high-priced office buildings and an upscale pedestrian shopping mall, both of which had windows shattered by the explosion.

Anger at the country’s top politicians was tangible, and many protesters carried signs reading “Hang up the nooses.” Demonstrators erected gallows and conducted ceremonial hangings of cardboard cutouts of President Michel Aoun; Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament; and Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, the powerful militant group and political party.

“Terrorists, terrorists! Hezbollah are terrorists!” some chanted.

The square, which is also close to Parliament, has been the central site of protests that have flared since last fall demanding the removal of the country’s top politicians. Many of Saturday’s protesters said it was anger at what they had lost in the blast that had driven them back into the streets.

“I lost my house, my car, my job; I lost friends,” said a protester, Eddy Gabriel, who carried a photo of two neighbors who had died in the blast. “There is nothing to be afraid of. Everything is gone.”

Lebanon was already grappling with an array of crises before Tuesday’s explosion, as the economy has sunk, banks have refused to give depositors access to their money, and unemployment and inflation have soared. In the weeks before the blast, the number of coronavirus cases reported daily had begun to spike, and many parts of the country were suffering from lengthy power cuts.

But the explosion, and indications that it was rooted in governmental neglect, have pushed tensions to the boiling point.

Lebanese officials have said the explosion happened when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound often used to make fertilizer and bombs, combusted, perhaps because of a fire started by welders working nearby. The industrial chemical had been stored in the port since 2014.

The dead included 43 Syrians, the Syrian state news agency said Saturday. Lebanon hosts about 1 million Syrian refugees, and many other Syrians live and work in the country.

The blast injured some 5,000 people and pushed at least 250,000 from their homes. The prime minister has vowed to investigate it and hold all those who were behind it accountable but doubts that justice will be done in a country with a long history of civil strife and assassinations whose perpetrators were never prosecuted.

Aoun on Friday said the blast could have been caused by a bomb or “foreign interference,” without providing details or evidence.

In a televised speech, Nasrallah denied his group had any connection to the chemicals, the blast or the port.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and has sent fighters to help keep President Bashar Assad of Syria in power, is widely believed to use the port to smuggle and store weapons. But no evidence has surfaced linking the group to the chemicals or the explosion.

The fury targeted not just specific figures but also the political system itself, in which everything from top governmental posts to civil service jobs are allocated according to a complex sectarian system. The protesters consider that system, and the power brokers who use it to enrich themselves and channel patronage to their supporters, to be the source of many of the country’s problems.

“It’s a corrupt government. They have to be held accountable,” said Marilyn Kallas, 21, wielding a broom she used to help clean up a damaged neighborhood before coming to the protest. “Hopefully they will resign.”

While government assistance to the blast victims has been minimal, foreign aid has streamed in, along with technicians and medics who are helping identify buildings at risk of collapsing and treating the wounded.

The office of President Emmanuel Macron of France announced that an international aid summit will be held by video conference Sunday, co-hosted by France and the United Nations. Macron was the first foreign leader to visit Lebanon since the blast, and he walked through some of the hardest-hit areas to speak with residents, something that Lebanon’s own president and prime minister have not done, likely to avoid becoming the targets of public anger.

The United States is providing more than $15 million in aid, and President Donald Trump said Friday that he would join Sunday’s videoconference.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the head of the Arab League, said Saturday that he would seek to mobilize support from Arab countries after meeting with Aoun.

“We are ready to help with all our means,” Aboul Gheit said.