BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters stormed several ministries Saturday in apparently planned raids after an explosion blamed on government negligence at Beirut port devastated the city and ignited unprecedented popular rage.
The day started with funerals for some of the 158 people killed by Tuesday’s monster blast but turned to rage when the largest anti-government protest in months escalated.
With security forces focused on a large gathering at the Martyrs’ Square protest hub, a group led by retired army officers snuck into the foreign ministry and declared the building a “headquarters of the revolution”.
The stunt, which marked a new development in the strategy of a protest camp whose Oct 17 uprising had lost steam lately, was facilitated by the damage the port blast shockwave had inflicted to the building.
But the takeover lasted barely three hours.
Large army reinforcements using rubber bullets and tear gas drove out the roughly 200 protesters, who only had time to chant celebratory slogans against the government and burn a portrait of President Michel Aoun.
At one point, protesters had stormed or taken over four key official buildings.
“We are officially at war with our government,” said activist Hayat Nazer, as tear gas filled the air in downtown Beirut. “This is war.”
Lebanon is ours
Separate groups of protesters also stormed the economy ministry, the Association of Banks in Lebanon and the energy ministry before being forced out by the army shortly afterwards.
The latter is the focus of particular anger from the population, which has in recent months been subjected to worse than ever power cuts due to the de facto bankruptcy of the state.
“They ruled Lebanon for 30 years, now Lebanon is ours,” said one protester speaking on live Lebanese television broadcasts.
“We entered the energy ministry and we are here to stay. They will be surprised by our actions,” he said, referring to the ruling political class protesters want to remove.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon, also an obvious target for protesters who have routinely nicknamed their rulers “the government of banks,” was ransacked, an AFP reporter said.
By 10.30pm (1930GMT) however, protesters had been dispersed and security forces deployed across the city, where the broken glass and rubble from Tuesday’s disaster mixed with the smoking remains of a night of rage.
The rallies claimed a human toll too, with one policeman falling to his death following an “assault” by “rioters”, the police said.
Dozens of people wounded during the violence also needed treatment in hospitals already bursting with the injured from Tuesday’s mega-blast and coronavirus patients.
Saturday’s events, which revealed new and more elaborate tactics on the part of the protesters, eclipsed a laconic televised speech by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who suggested early elections.
Heads will roll
Under increased pressure from the street, which wants heads to roll over the Beirut port tragedy, and foreign partners exasperated by the leadership’s inability to enact reforms, Diab’s government was fraying at the edges.
A bloc of three MPs from an opposition Christian party resigned from parliament Saturday, bringing to five the number of lawmakers to quit since the Aug 4 explosion.
When he visited the blast site on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the billions of dollars in available aid would not be forthcoming if the Lebanese state did not implement deep changes.
Crippled by debt and the local currency’s nosedive, threatened by a spike in Covid-19 cases, Lebanon can ill-afford international isolation, but its hereditary ruling class is digging its heels in.
On the eve of an international donor conference organised by Macron for disaster-stricken Lebanon, many have urged foreign powers not to funnel more money into thieving and incompetent hands.
“We call on all the anguished Lebanese people to take to the streets to demand the prosecution of all the corrupt,” said Sami Rammah, the retired general who spearheaded the short-lived occupation of the foreign ministry Saturday.
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit met top officials ahead of expected visits by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel.
Near the massive crater caused by Tuesday’s explosion, whose shockwave was felt on the island of Cyprus, teams of Lebanese and foreign rescuers were digging through the rubble in an 11-hour push to find survivors.
According to the health ministry, at least 158 people were killed and 6,000 were wounded by the blast, which in a few seconds levelled the port and sowed as much destruction in some areas as 15 years of civil war had done a generation ago.
Syrian authorities said over 40 Syrians were among the dead, though it was unclear if they were part of the Lebanese health ministry’s tally.
The Netherlands also announced that its ambassador’s wife had died on Saturday of injuries sustained in the blast.