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Hundreds dead, buildings levelled, clientelist octopus untouched

28th Aug 2020
Hundreds dead, buildings levelled, clientelist octopus untouched

The aftermath of the devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut.
(Credit: Muhammet Fatih Oğraş/Anadolu Agency)

Aly Hamdan: Beirut, Lebanon

“I was waiting for a friend in a café in Hamra Street when I felt this rumbling shaking underground, everything suddenly shook. I thought it was an earthquake; people were looking at each other in profound silence when the first explosion hit. Is it a car bomb or more assassinations? I wondered,” 30-year-old Leila says.

“Everyone started predicting, but no one knew what was going on exactly. The old lady was picking up her eyeglasses when the second blast rocked the city, glass shattered everywhere, panic exceeded shock, a customer started shouting at those heading outside, he thought Israel was bombing and ordered everyone to follow him to the basement.

My house is a few hundred meters away, it is best to go home, I thought to myself. I grabbed my backpack and rushed outside; the streets were blanketed with glass, people running in every direction, in the city of the loudest car horns ever, the voices of those screaming inside their flats and on the balconies were, for the first time, louder.

I looked up trying to figure out what is going on and saw the gigantic bloody smoke covering the sky. I was about to swallow my tongue, choking with tears I made my way home. We lost everything; we lost all hope in this country. It feels like a funeral in the chest,” Leila concludes in a shaky voice and trembling hands.

Nothing was left untouched after Lebanon’s unprecedented explosion, nothing but the octopus.

Every city demonstrates an instant visual identity through its most recognizable landmark. Eiffel distinguishes Paris, the Sydney Opera house stands out in Australia, Rome is well known for the Colosseum and Dubai for Burj Khalifa; the bloody, apocalyptic, nuclear-like blast is what Beirut will be famous for from now and until further notice.

The explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4 was a Beirushima; at least 177 people were killed, 5,000 injured, 300,000 families displaced. The city’s strategic port was demolished as well as its main grain silo.

The industrial waterfront was destroyed, the symbolic downtown, the hospitals, the residential buildings of Mar-Mikhael and Gemmayze, the shopping malls and souks all were severely damaged, in addition to 640 historic buildings that were affected greatly, according to the UN’ cultural agency, UNESCO, burdening Lebanon with a repair bill of up to $15 billion, declared Charbel Cordahi, the President’s economic and financial advisor.

Lebanon’s dysfunctional governance that failed to combat the wildfires during last fall, mishandled October 17 uprising in the wake of taxing WhatsApp, mismanaged the economy and the currency that lost 80 per cent of its value, and barely endured the Covid-19 black swan – so far, culminates with the port’s gigantic chemical blast.

The bombing occurred shortly after the escalation between the Israeli occupation forces and Hizbullāh fighters on the southern borders after the killing of one of the latter’s leaders in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria and a series of Israeli threats against Lebanon after Hizbullāh Secretary-General, Hasan Nasrallah’s promise to take revenge on the killers.

On the other hand, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was due to give the verdict in the trial of four Hizbullāh members accused over the 2005 Beirut bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Al-Hariri, on August 7, three days after the huge explosion that led to the postponement of the verdict to August 18.

The verdict is expected to spark more tensions between the Hizbullāh-backed wing and the opposing Hariri-led parties both in politics and in the streets.

In this course, and in the aftermath of the massive blast, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, broke the diplomatic blockade on President Aoun’s tenure by an unexpected visit in which he pledged a new political deal to end Lebanon’s status-quo and promised to deliver aids directly to people through NGOs exclusively, implying the mistrust in the ruling warlords and their Government.

The controversial initiative of Macron in Beirut is perfectly clarified through the tweets of Paula Yacoubian, the independent Lebanese Parliamentarian, in which she welcomed the French President the first day and thanked him for his support, then apologized for her “naïve thank you” the day after when he called for a national unity Government, which disappoints change enthusiasts and is regarded as a call for “business as usual” in Lebanese politics, says the Director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, Sami Atallah, “This means no reforms, no accountability, disregarding of protestors’ demands, and a total dismissal that the port devastating explosion is the product of this defunct political system.”

Macron’s “colonial” visit, as described by mainstream regional media outlets, was followed by the resignation of eight MPs, and the collapse of the Hizbullāh-led Government amid mock executions of prominent political leaders in the Beirut’s central Martyrs’ square and calling for an international probe into the port’s bombing to avoid a century-long Lebanese tendency to politicize the rule of law and justice.

Meanwhile, Nasrallah, rejected in a televised speech marking the 2006 July war with Israel, any international intervention in investigations, and reiterated his party’s trust in the Lebanese judicial authorities.

“The resistance will not remain silent if the investigation determines that Israel is involved,” he said, to silence sceptics. “Some political parties sought in the past days to drag Lebanon into civil war to serve personal and foreign interests” he added, asking his supporters to keep their anger as it might be needed one day to put an end to all the attempts to incite civil strife in Beirut.

As the opposition blames the Tehran-backed party for protecting a corrupt political class and triggering the economic and financial collapse by attracting the US sanctions, hence the deteriorating living standards in general, analysts frame what is going on as temporary international pressures on Hizbullāh to resume talks over the issue of the Lebanese-Palestinian maritime demarcation and facilitate the oil and gas extraction from common waters, soften his stance on modifying the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon, and pave the way to negotiate the party’s intimidating precision-guided missiles.

Beirut’s port catastrophe worsens Lebanon’s economic misery and its financial crisis and intensifies divisions among political rivals which put national security at stake, amid an ailing and verbose state speech that blends populism with metaphors, a growing international and regional appetite for the gas and oil in the Lebanese waters, and a historical pro-Israel western diplomacy that prioritizes the Israeli interests.

“The wealth of a person in ancient Africa has traditionally been determined by the number of pigs he or she owns, and to ensure that the pigs won’t escape, before the innovation of wooden railings, farmers tended to slice off a chunk of every pig’s nose in order to weaken its sniffing abilities and make the search for food painful and hardly possible so that they become completely dependent on their owners,” says Hilal, a 28-year-old engineer who lost his job a few months ago due to the economic meltdown and his loft in the explosion.

“We are ruled by a rude oligarchy that mutilated our noses in some way and made our living away from them quite unattainable,” Hilal notes, highlighting the prevailing Lebanese clientelist octopus that blocks, so far, any possibility of real change.


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