Massive demonstrations rippled through Beirut on 8 August as protesters took to the streets calling for revenge on the politicians who bear collective responsibility for the huge explosion at the port on 4 August. Protesters stormed the Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Economy, the Ministry of the Environment and set the Association of Banks headquarters on fire. “This is the heart of corruption. The centre of fraud and plunder”, commented one of the demonstrators as he filmed inside the Ministry of Energy.
According to Lebanese activist Jad Chaaban, activists were enraged to find that the lights and air conditioning were on over the weeked in the empty building when most of the rest of Beirut was dark.
As tens of thousands surged through the streets, the authorities hit back, sending the army to beat and arrest demonstrators. Tear gas swirled through Gemayze, the shattered district close to the epicentre of the blast and videos circulating on social media showed soldiers shooting unarmed protesters with live and rubber bullets in several locations across the capital. The legal committee formed to defend arrested protesters said that it had documented dozens of cases of shot protesters.
The explosion which ripped through Beirut on 4 August has piled on more misery after a year of disasters for ordinary people. Lebanon was already reeling from the deepest economic crisis in the country’s modern history, and the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, when the blast killed at least 150 and sent huge shock waves through the city leaving thousands injured and badly damaging the homes of around 300,000 people. By 7 August officials were estimating the economic losses from the explosion, which has been blamed on a fire in a warehouse storing ammonium nitrate at the port, at around $15 billion.
Emergency workers including ten firefighters killed as they battled the blaze, were among the dead, who also included dozens working in the port, and people killed as the shockwaves battered the city. The port plays a critical role in Lebanon’s economy, which is heavily dependent on imports. Grain silos next to the warehouse flattened by the blast were destroyed in the explosion, threatening to make the existing food crisis worse.
Even before the explosion, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were facing food shortages amid rising inflation and a huge surge in unemployment. At the end of July Save the Children warned that nearly a million people, half of them children, were “struggling to survive.” “We will start seeing children dying from hunger before the end of the year,” Jad Sakr, acting Country Director for the charity told the media.
Not only Lebanese citizens are facing disaster, as Lebanon is home to millions of Syrians and Palestinians who face systematic discrimination at work and suffer endemic poverty. Around a third of the casualties announced so far from the blast were Syrian citizens. According to the World Food Programme, while one in five Lebanese say they have skipped meals or gone without food to make ends meet, that figure rises to one third for Syrians in Lebanon.
Another extremely vulnerable group are the tens of thousands of domestic workers who come to Lebanon under the abusive and restrictive kafala system. Women domestic workers are “sponsored” by their employer who controls their passport and their right to work in the country. The system is set up to favour abusers and many women have found themselves destitute and trapped in Lebanon after being abandoned by employers during the pandemic.
And even before the pandemic, the economic crisis was causing shortages in vital medical supplies as hospitals struggled to source equipment and medicine from abroad. The financial meltdown has been blamed by hospitals for the mass sacking of staff – the American University in Beirut sacked over 1000 members staff on 17 July, including hundreds of nursing and admin staff from the university hospital. As the announcement was made, the security forces deployed armoured cars to intimidate workers and in an attempt to stop protests.
Managers have blamed the financial meltdown for staff cuts, but staff and students rejected the attempt to make the most vulnerable pay for the crisis. The Faculty United Executive Committee which represents academic staff said in a statement: “Employees and colleagues were treated as “disposable commodities”, rather than human beings. We fully understand the pressing need for cost-cutting measures … these measures should never target the weakest and most vulnerable but should rather start at the top of the AUB hierarchy.”
Staff and students took to the streets to show their solidarity with sacked workers, sealing off the doors to the university with police tape and declaring it a “crime scene”.
The depth of criminality at the top of the Lebanese state means that it isn’t enough to fight for jobs and take on one employer after another, Lebanese activists say. Since last October, millions of people have taken to the streets repeatedly calling for revolutionary change and the downfall of the rotten sectarian system of government. Although the first wave of protests was successful in forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri a new government eventually formed which left the root of the problem untouched. Now the feeling that change must come from below has been intensified by rage at the utter callousness with which politicians have treated ordinary people. As Rima Majed, an independent union activist who teaches sociology at AUB put it on Twitter on 8 August “Let’s not repeat the mistake of October, there is a political opportunity we should not miss, we are not mobilizing today to express our feelings, we are mobilizing to put an end to this criminal mafia rule. For that we need trusted people to step up and form an emergency committee to be in charge as alternative now.”
Allowing the existing political establishment to monopolise the relief effort risks reproducing the same sectarian system, Rima added. “People will have no income, and “charity” that comes to the state and its mafia can be a dangerous route that might reproduce those in power, the criminals who blew us up yesterday!”.
International leaders have rushed to promise financial support, while French president Emmanuel Macron turned up in Beirut castigating Lebanon’s political establishment. Yet the sectarian political system which people are revolting against today is in large part the deliberate creation of the French colonial authorities who left a legacy of division in order to better rule the country during the 1920s. And the tear gas choking protesters on the streets of Beirut was supplied by French firms to the security forces, according to activists.
Global financial institutions like the IMF, which is negotiating a “rescue package” with the Lebanese government are proposing solutions which will push more people into unemployment and misery through neoliberal “reform” to the public sector. The accounts for Lebanon’s central bank, including dodgy “financial engineering” tricks which experts say were designed to hide huge losses, were recently signed off by Deloitte, one of the firms cashing in on the privatisation of the NHS.
What you can do:
- Call for the immediate end to the violent suppression of protests. Contact the Lebanese embassy in your country to demand the release of detained protesters. Tell the British government to stop all forms of military aid and equipment from reaching the hands of the repressive sectarian regime
- Donate to non-sectarian organisations mobilising to support people on the ground (for example https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/lebanon-relief)
- Join protests called by Lebanese activists abroad – look out on social media for initiatives targeting embassies and help spread the word.