Lebanon’s embattled leadership, under fire after a massive explosion laid waste to large parts of central Beirut, faced public fury yesterday and stern calls to reform from the visiting French president and the IMF.
Grief has turned to anger in a traumatised nation where at least 137 people died and over 5,000 were injured in Tuesday’s colossal explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse.
To many Lebanese, it was tragic proof of the rot at the core of their governing system which has failed to halt the deepest economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war that has plunged millions into poverty. French President Emmanuel Macron, on a snap visit to shell-shocked Beirut, pledged to lead international emergency relief efforts and organise an aid conference in coming days, promising that “Lebanon is not alone”.
The International Monetary Fund, whose talks with Lebanon started in May but have since stalled, warned that it was “essential to overcome the impasse in the discussions on critical reforms”.
The IMF urged Lebanon – which is seeking more than $20bn in external funding and now faces billions more in disaster costs – “to put in place a meaningful program to turn around the economy” following Tuesday’s disaster.
Compounding the woes, Lebanon recorded 255 coronavirus cases yesterday – its highest single-day infection tally – after the blast upended a planned lockdown and sent thousands streaming into overflowing hospitals.
The disaster death toll was expected to rise as rescue workers kept digging through the rubble. Offering a glimmer of hope amid the carnage, a French rescuer said there was a “good chance of finding... people alive”, telling Macron seven or eight missing people could be stuck in a room buried under the rubble.
Even as they counted their dead, many Lebanese were consumed with anger over the blast they see as the most shocking expression yet of their leadership’s incompetence.
“We can’t bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go,” said 30-year-old Mohammad Suyur. A flood of angry posts on social media suggested the disaster could reignite a cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted in October but faded amid the grinding economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits responsible for the disaster behind bars. But trust in institutions is low and few on Beirut’s streets held out hope for an impartial inquiry. Amid the gloom and fury, the aftermath of the terrible explosion has also yielded countless uplifting examples of spontaneous solidarity.
Business owners swiftly took to social media, posting offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.
In Beirut, much of the cleanup has been handled by volunteers. “We’re sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight,” said Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.
“We don’t have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands.”
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