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Citizens of all religious sects are coming together to demand that the country’s entire political elite – who they blame for allowing the devastating Port of Beirut explosion to happen – step down and face justice

Lynn Modallal, 28, Sunni Muslim, and Andrew Hraiz, 32, a Maronite Christian, at his parents' home in Beirut's Gemmayzeh neighbourhood on Aug. 14, 2020.Photography by Rafael Yaghobzadeh/The Globe and Mail

In a previous era, Andrew Hraiz, a Maronite Christian, and his girlfriend Lynn Modallal, a Sunni Muslim, might have been on opposite sides of Lebanon’s political divide. They certainly wouldn’t have been on the same side of the struggle as Bane Fakih, a Shia Muslim who says “half her family” is in Hezbollah.

But in the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion that devastated entire neighbourhoods of the city they all call home, all three have joined the same protests, trying to bring down a system – a post-civil war pact that divides power among the country’s three main religious groups – that they blame for allowing the catastrophe to happen.

They’re furious at all of those who knew, and did nothing, about the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that sat unattended in a warehouse in the port of Beirut for more than six years before erupting in a mushroom cloud that left at least 172 people dead and made 300,000 homeless. Fingers of blame are pointed at both President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who announced his resignation this week.

But the protesters want much deeper change than simply replacing Mr. Diab, or even the more entrenched figure of Mr. Aoun, whose resignation they intend to demand next. They say they want to see Lebanon’s entire political elite stripped of the formal and informal power they and their families have held since a 1990 peace agreement that ended a 15-year civil war by effectively dividing the country up between the same warlords who had torn it apart.

The pact has kept a semblance of peace for most of the past three decades in this country, long the field where more powerful, countries – the United States, Syria, Iran and Israel – come to fight their battles. But it’s a peace that has fostered a culture of corruption and impunity that has now overwhelmed the state.

The protesters hope to see the end of not only Mr. Aoun and his Christian rival Samir Geagea, but also Sunni leader Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Nabih Berri, the long-serving Shia speaker of parliament. And yes, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the powerful Hezbollah militia, too.

“All of them means all of them,” is one of the most common chants at the near-daily protests – a slogan that captures the protesters’ demand for their entire political elite to stand aside and, ideally, face justice. It’s a revolutionary idea in a country where many older Lebanese identify more with their political leader and their religious affiliation, than by their nationality.

“It’s a rebellion against our father figures – and the biggest father figures are Aoun and Nasrallah,” said Mr. Hraiz, a 32-year-old founder of a comedy club that – if not for the coronavirus pandemic – was supposed to be holding a show on Aug. 4 right beside the now-devastated port of Beirut. Sitting beside him at a café in the city’s hard-hit Gemmayzeh district, Ms. Modallal, a 28-year-old art director, said many Lebanese had “a disease” that made them willing to blame the other oligarchs for the country’s problems, but unable to see the faults with their own sectarian leader. “I don’t need a father figure.”

Some go further and blame their parents’ generation, those who lived through the civil war, for allowing a cabal of militia bosses to take over the country.

Bane Fakih.

“It’s like the civil war happened, and then they collectively decided not to talk about it,” said Ms. Fakih, a 28-year-old film director who was on the front line of some of the fiercest clashes last weekend.

Ms. Fakih said she doesn’t expect that the sectarian leaders, or the foreign powers that back them, will step aside of their own accord. But, she points out, the men that rule Lebanon are getting older. Mr. Aoun, the president, is 85. Mr. Berri, speaker since 1992, is 82.

“My hope is that they will die. The day that Berri dies, there will be a celebration. When our parents’ generation dies, the war trauma will dilute, and maybe we can change things.”

Workers in Gemmayzeh clean up the damage from the explosion.

Ten days on from the port explosion, Beirut is still digging out, still finding more dead bodies in the rubble. In Gemmayzeh, the groan of construction cranes lifting pieces of fallen cement mingled unmelodically on Friday with the tinkle of broken glass being swept off sidewalks and balconies.

The scale of the destruction is almost too much to grasp, in places recalling war zones such as Kabul or Aleppo. The port area – a critical lifeline for import-reliant Lebanon – is now a vast field of twisted metal interrupted only by the battered husk of the country’s main grain silo, the sole building that remains standing in the area. On a street near the port, a brown taxi still sits with its roof caved in by a giant piece of cement. Someone has taped a picture of the dead driver, Ahmad Ibrahim Kaadan, to the hood of the car, but no one has towed the vehicle away.

A few blocks away, a nurse was killed when the blast wave slammed into the Sisters of the Rosary hospital, an institution that became a casualty itself. The force of the blast blew out every window, bent the metal elevator doors inward, and catapulted patients out of their beds.

Volunteers are everywhere – cleaning the streets, handing out food, tending to the wounded – but the state is absent. The only visible institution is the army, which was given additional powers under a state of emergency declared on Thursday. A day later, soldiers wandered the streets with assault rifles at the ready, but did nothing to help rebuild.

The resignation of Mr. Diab, a relatively unknown academic until he was hired into the prime minister’s job earlier this year, marked a victory for the protesters, while at the same time changing little about how the country is run. The most-often mentioned potential replacement is Mr. Hariri, who has twice before served as prime minister, and whom protesters forced to resign just last fall.

A group of victims of the port explosion held a news conference Friday in the shadow of another of Gemmayzeh’s shattered buildings to announce they were sending a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, calling for the formation of an international tribunal to investigate the port blast. Lebanon’s powers-that-be collectively stand accused, they argued, and thus can’t be trusted to investigate themselves.

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“We thought we were governed by corrupt people, but in fact we were governed by murderers,” said Nawal Elmeouchi, a 67-year-old Lebanese-Canadian who said she was representing her four children, whose homes had all been damaged in the blast. “Every person who could have known and should have known – we want them tried. We have to topple all of them.”

“The issue at this point is not who is prime minister, it’s the whole system of governance,” said Nadim Khoury, a Lebanese-Canadian who runs the Arab Reform Initiative, a Paris-based think tank. “The system today is manifested by six oligarchs. Lebanon is run by a mafia of six. They are the ones who make all the decisions.”

A family looks out over the port of Beirut.

Lebanon has tried to say “khalass” – the Arabic word for “enough” before. Tens of thousands took to the streets demanding change in 2005, after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri’s father, in another massive blast that shook Beirut. They protested again in 2015 when – in a small-scale harbinger of the port explosion – an overflowing dump, and the lack of a government plan for what to do about it, left garbage uncollected for months on the stinking streets of the capital.

While those protests made some gains – the 2005 protests succeeded in ending the Syrian army’s 29-year presence in Lebanon – they ended with deals that left Lebanon’s political system intact. That system – an intricate quilt of patronage that sees entire villages economically and politically reliant on sectarian leaders who are themselves dependent on the support of foreign sponsors – became the target of the 2015 protesters, who saw the garbage crisis as a symbol of the corruption and incompetence of the country’s ruling class.

Those same factors brought furious crowds back onto the streets again in October of last year. This time the trigger was a growing economic crisis, and the government’s stunning plan to raise revenues by taxing calls made on WhatsApp. Those demonstrations, which were paused by the pandemic, have resumed with vengeance since the port explosion. What’s changed is that the old formula for defusing political crises – a settlement reached behind closed doors by the various sectarian leaders – is no longer acceptable to the angry crowds on the streets. The sectarian leaders are themselves now seen as the problem.

Khalass. It’s over. I think we’re somewhere completely different now. We’re beyond the point of anger. Lebanon is going towards a political transition,” said Carmen Geha, a veteran political activist who teaches public administration at the American University in Beirut. “It’s us or these people,” she added, referring to the sectarian leaders. “We have to get rid of them or we’re going to die.”

NGO volunteers distribute aid.

The tragic irony is that the system of sectarian power-sharing was created to protect Lebanon from disaster. After a 15-year civil war, which killed 120,000 people and was fought largely along sectarian lines, the country’s warlords agreed in 1990 to end the bloodshed – essentially by dividing the spoils.

The pact, known as the Taif Accords, seemed meritorious at the time: A Maronite Christian would always be president, a Sunni Muslim the prime minister, and a Shia Muslim the speaker of parliament. Each would make sure their sect’s interests were protected. No religious group would be allowed to dominate the others.

But protecting the interests of each group came to mean protecting the interests of the sectarian leaders. The best way to get a top government job was to demonstrate loyalty to your sectarian leader, rather than a relevant skill set.

And the sectarian leaders became dependent, in turn, on their international allies. Of the six oligarchs, three – Mr. Hariri, Mr. Jumblatt and Mr. Geagea – are broadly pro-Western, receiving support at various times from the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Mr. Nasrallah, Mr. Aoun and Mr. Berri are allied with Syria and Iran.

It was this combustible mix of nepotism, corruption, foreign interference and incompetence that contributed to the destruction of the port of Beirut. While several government departments raised the alarm about the looming disaster that was the ammonium nitrate stockpile in Warehouse 12 of the port – most recently in a July 20 letter from the country’s National Security Agency that was seen by both Mr. Aoun and Mr. Diab – none took meaningful action to resolve the issue. The port authority’s board of directors is divided, like everything else in Lebanon, along sectarian lines, with each faction receiving a set number of seats on the board. With the port used by the various sects to move weapons and other illicit cargo in and out of the country, those who were supposedly responsible for overseeing safety and security at the port knew better than to ask too many questions about what was in Warehouse 12.

Mr. Diab hinted at the scale of the problem in his resignation speech. “I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state, but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state.”

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The members of the board of the Port Authority look likely to bear the blame for the catastrophe. All 16 were placed under house arrest 48 hours after the blast, shortly after gross negligence, and not a foreign attack, emerged as the most likely cause of the blast.

But the port is far from unique in how it’s misgoverned. Each sect appoints one of the six members on the board of directors at Electricité du Liban (EDL), which struggled to keep the lights on in Beirut for more than a few hours a day even before the economic crisis, let alone the port explosion, which destroyed EDL’s head office. The country’s Central Bank – which reacted to the economic downturn by first restricting cash withdrawals, then printing money in such volumes as to cause the country’s currency to plunge to a quarter of its precrisis value – is governed along the same lines.

“It’s not just the Port of Beirut – at all other Lebanese institutions you find the same story repeated, where there is no authority, no chain of command,” said Habib Battah, a journalist who founded the Beirut Report investigative website. “No one’s really in charge of Lebanon at any moment. How could we expect that a country that could not even pick up its garbage, that could not keep its lights on, would be able to deal with a Hiroshima-like mound of munitions?”

'The heart of Beirut will light once more,' reads a banner in the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood on Aug. 14.

In good times, Lebanon often feels like it’s about to leave the Middle East behind. In the moments when conflict, or the possibility of conflict, fades into the background, the country that emerges is a tourism magnet and trading hub. It produces some of the region’s best food (and wine), and a freewheeling anything-goes atmosphere that makes it an escape hatch – and an investment destination – for residents of the region’s more repressive regimes.

Despite those blessings, the scale of Lebanon’s problems has become almost inconceivable. The port explosion damaged an uncounted number of businesses. People can’t rebuild because they can’t get their money out of the banks. Food prices have soared 250 per cent in the past 12 months – and that was before the blast damaged the silo holding most of the country’s grain supply. Half the country lives below the poverty line, more than half is unemployed.

The government is US$100-billion in debt, the economy is expected to contract 26 per cent this year, and Western donors are wary of bailing out a government they see as dominated by Hezbollah and its supporters in Tehran. The last point is critical as the country’s searches for a new prime minister and cabinet.

On Tuesday, an international tribunal is expected to deliver its verdict on four Hezbollah members charged in absentia with the 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri. If they are found guilty, as is widely expected, the U.S. is expected to call for new sanctions targeting Hezbollah and its allies.

French President Emmanuel Macron drew cheers by visiting the devastated Gemmayzeh district shortly after the blast, and he has promised to return to Lebanon on Sept. 1 to lay out a new vision for how the country could be governed. But real change may not be what Mr. Macron has in mind either – several pro-Western MPs, who say they were planning to quit in response to the protests, claim they were advised not to by Mr. Macron.

Mr. Macron likely doesn’t want to see the West’s allies in Lebanon quit their posts until Iran’s allies do the same. And the latter appears unlikely: A recently erected banner in the Shia suburbs of south Beirut warned it was “a red line” to demand Mr. Berri’s resignation as speaker. “We will break the neck of whoever crosses it.”

Even more complicated is the status of Hezbollah, which is a key ally of Iran in its standoff with Israel. The Islamist militia has demonstrated in the past that it has the ability to seize control of Beirut in a matter of hours if it wants to. The West, and many of the protesters in Gemmayzeh, may want to see the group disarmed, but Tehran has little reason to agree so long as it perceives a threat from the U.S. and Israel.

Nassim Zoueini.

“Lebanon is an international production. We have the Western powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia all organizing for their interests here – and the Lebanese people have paid the price,” said Mr. Battah, the journalist. “I think the whole world bears responsibility for Lebanon’s current status.”

The protesters say they now want the world’s help rebuilding after the explosion – but they hope the international community will lend a hand while also ostracizing their country’s government and political elites. “If you want to help the Lebanese people – we are the people, not them,” said Nassim Zoueini, a 28-year-old engineer-turned political activist who was sweeping the streets of Gemmayzeh on Friday with a team of young volunteers.

Mr. Zoueini said the aid – whether it comes from the West or from Iran – also shouldn’t come with strings attached, like it has in the past, when Iranian money was marked for fighting Israel, and Western aid often targeted at pushing back Iran. “[Foreign countries] have to fulfill their commitment to democracy and truly leave us alone. They can’t buy us by giving us weapons and money. We are not like those elderly warlords.”

Ms. Modallal in Mr. Hraiz's parents' home on Aug. 14.

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