Breaking Point

By Lucy Wright

In October 2019, Lebanon’s ‘youngest revolutionary’, Alexandra Najjar joined the demonstrations at Martyr’s Square in Beirut, as a wave of anti-government protests swept across the country. Sparked by the proposed WhatsApp Tax, the protests were the culmination of years of accumulated frustration over public sector mismanagement and rampant corruption that had sunk the country into $86bn of debt.

Tragically, Alexandra died on Friday. Succumbing to the injuries she sustained, the three year old is one of the youngest victims of the deadly Beirut explosions that shook the Lebanese capital at 6:08pm on Tuesday 4th August. The explosion thundered through the port and city, causing entire buildings to collapse. Millions of jagged shards of glass ripped through the air, through offices, hospitals, homes. Lexo, as she was called by her family, is among the 158 people who were killed from the explosion (estimated number dead at the time of writing). With over 5000 injured, and leaving hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes, it is feared that many remain missing in the rubble, as families desperately seek news of loved ones.

The cause of the explosion is still under investigation. Initial reports indicate that the blast that destroyed the port and so much of the city was caused by 2750 tonnes of the industrial chemical, ammonium nitrate, stored in a port warehouse. It is believed that this ammonium nitrate, the chemical associated with the 1993 Bishopgate bombing in London, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the cause of huge explosions in Texas, USA in 1947 and Tianjin port, China in 2015 – both of which killed scores of people – was confiscated from a ship and stored in unsafe conditions for six years. How and why such a dangerous chemical ended up so close to residential areas of the city are questions left, so far, unanswered. Some fear that we will never know, and that those responsible are actively rejecting an international investigation.

In an article for the Guardian, Beirut based writer, Lina Mounzer, states that “This was no “unfortunate accident” – it was lethal neglect. We’ve known for a long time that our safety, well-being and lives meant nothing to these men.” Such a sentiment of distrust and frustration is one shared among many Beirut citizens. Political unrest has been fuelled by popular rage directed at the entrenched political elite, as several thousands of people have once again taken to the street, with protestors storming government ministries. Transformed into a battle zone between police and protesters, dozens of people were injured in Saturday’s demonstrations at Marty’s Square. The Lebanese Red Cross reported that it had treated 185 people for injuries at the scene of the protests, while another 65 were taken to hospital.

In an attempt to quell the crisis, Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, in a televised address, stated that he would introduce a bill to call early elections. Meanwhile, World Leaders met virtually on Sunday to co-ordinate aid for Lebanon. During a visit to Beirut on Thursday, French president Emmanuel Macron promised crowds that reconstruction funds would not go into “corrupt hands”. In response to fears that the aid would be abused, Macron announced that “we will be very attentive that the aid is deployed effectively on the ground, to the population.” In a city engulfed in grief, where the rage of the people is palpable, the Beirut explosion has only deepened the distrust in what many already viewed as an inept and corrupt political elite.

Thirty years after the 15 year long Lebanese Civil War, the people of Beirut still do not have access to 24 hour electricity, proper water and sanitation or reliable refuse collection. Following the October demonstrations, the previous government resigned in the face of mass protests against corruption and growing inequality. Yet, the victory of the protestors was to be short lived. Under Prime Minister Diab, “the new government appointed to take its place traded only names, not parties or policies.” Since his appointment in March, the economy has imploded. The currency has devalued more than 80%. Banks limited withdrawals while bankers smuggled $6bn out of the country, rendering the salaries and life savings of ordinary people worthless overnight. Such a severe economic crisis was simply heightened by the Covid 19 outbreak. No aid was administered to a population now left destitute. Amidst mass layoffs and public suicides, mothers bartered their humble belongings for baby formula.

Beirut. A city embroiled in economic and political turmoil, now tormented by the deaths of its people. Its children. ‘The state has already made the fatal mistake of neglecting flammable material, leaving it in unsafe conditions. A potential explosion just waiting for a spark. This time, when it blows up in their faces, they cannot plead ignorance.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: Twitter

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