Dispatch

Lebanese Mark One-Year Anniversary of Blast With Protests, Rage, and Remembrance

No one has been held accountable for the explosion, even as Lebanon spirals further into economic catastrophe.

By , a correspondent and producer based in Beirut.
A protester on the anniversary of the Beirut blast.
A protester stands with a Lebanese national flag during clashes with army and security forces near the Lebanese parliament headquarters in the center of Beirut on Aug. 4. Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images

BEIRUT—Lebanon saw its biggest anti-government protests in months this week as citizens marked one year since a massive explosion at Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people and heavily damaged parts of the city.

The explosion, caused by several tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored at the port since 2014, brought the dysfunction of the Lebanese state and the unaccountability of its political class into sharp focus. Although a number of officials, including the president and prime minister, had been warned of the danger the explosives posed, efforts by prosecutors to charge anyone for the blast have foundered due to prosecution immunity enjoyed by current and former government ministers.

“The government didn’t do anything. The explosion didn’t happen alone; they caused it,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, whose brother, 46-year-old firefighter Tharwat Mohamed Hoteit, was killed by the blast after responding to the fire that caused the ammonium nitrate to ignite. Hoteit and the families of other victims of the explosion have called for an international investigation backed by the United Nations after losing faith that the Lebanese government can carry one out competently.

BEIRUT—Lebanon saw its biggest anti-government protests in months this week as citizens marked one year since a massive explosion at Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people and heavily damaged parts of the city.

The explosion, caused by several tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored at the port since 2014, brought the dysfunction of the Lebanese state and the unaccountability of its political class into sharp focus. Although a number of officials, including the president and prime minister, had been warned of the danger the explosives posed, efforts by prosecutors to charge anyone for the blast have foundered due to prosecution immunity enjoyed by current and former government ministers.

“The government didn’t do anything. The explosion didn’t happen alone; they caused it,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, whose brother, 46-year-old firefighter Tharwat Mohamed Hoteit, was killed by the blast after responding to the fire that caused the ammonium nitrate to ignite. Hoteit and the families of other victims of the explosion have called for an international investigation backed by the United Nations after losing faith that the Lebanese government can carry one out competently.

“What should happen is a revolution. People shouldn’t get out of the streets, and that’s what we are hoping for, not getting out of the streets before getting what we want,” Hoteit said.

Last year’s blast came amid social unrest that began in October 2019, when demonstrators began to regularly block roads and take to the streets to protest government corruption and economic mismanagement. Since then, the country’s economic deterioration has only worsened as the government defaulted on international loans and its currency lost more than 90 percent of its value against the dollar. Banks froze depositors’ accounts in an effort to cut their own losses, depriving people of their savings. Since the government effectively ran out of money, it has fully lifted or reduced subsidies on a number of items, causing fuel, medication, and other shortages, which compounded citizens’ misery. The fuel shortage has also crippled Lebanon’s electrical generation, leading to widespread blackouts.

What caused the fire remains unclear.

Adding to the problem, Lebanon has been without a government for the last year, as politicians bicker over the distribution of ministerial portfolios. Lebanon’s sectarian-based quota system commonly leads to delays in forming governments, but Hoteit said the political class—often referred to simply as “the mafia” by Lebanese—is united in protecting one another.

“The politicians differ when they talk about money and quotas. But they are one hand in the end, and the biggest example is when they all stood together to reject lifting immunity” for the explosion, Hoteit said.

What caused the fire remains unclear as well as whether the shipment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, ostensibly bound for Mozambique, was actually intended for another destination. Beirut’s port has long been notorious for corruption and smuggling, and an investigation by a Lebanese TV reporter suggested the company that owned the ammonium nitrate had links to Syrian businesspeople. It has been speculated the explosives may have been intended for groups fighting in Syria’s civil war.

Much of the port itself remains mangled, and large parts of adjacent neighborhoods are still in ruins. The government has provided little aid for rebuilding, leaving the effort up to nonprofits and private citizens.

On Wednesday evening, thousands of people filled both sides of the highway next to the port as well as streets in the surrounding neighborhoods. Others simply mourned in front of their homes, where they had been when the blast struck. After observing a moment of silence at 6:07 p.m. local time, the time the blast struck, demonstrators marched toward Lebanon’s parliament building less than a mile away. Demonstrators have repeatedly attempted to storm the building in the last two years and were, as before, dispersed by police with volleys of tear gas.

For some demonstrators, Wednesday revived hopes the protest movement, which regularly occupied public spaces in 2019 but has since trailed off, might be rekindled.

“It’s been a year, and no one knows what happened, what caused it,” said Mohamad Kaouk, a 21-year-old student who was part of the group that marched to parliament. “It felt good when we went to the port in large numbers. But I was hoping that it wouldn’t end after one day. I don’t think they should have waited for [the anniversary] to go and protest. We are living in hard times—inflation, no electricity. I don’t know why people are still sitting and waiting.”

The country’s monthly minimum wage is now considered insufficient to feed a family as prices have skyrocketed in the import-dependent nation. A number of countries as well as the International Monetary Fund have promised to deliver aid if Lebanon’s politicians agree to a series of reforms intended to reduce government corruption and mismanagement. So far, no government has agreed to those reforms, and it is unclear whether a new one, whenever it is formed, will do so.

“It seems inevitable that large parts of the Lebanese population could fall through the cracks.”

“The outlook seems deeply negative in all likelihood,” said Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation who studies Lebanon and Syria. “Absent some kind of major change of heart or a collective realization on the part of the country’s political class, who seem to remain pretty solidly in control despite what some people think about their legitimacy, it seems like the country is likely heading toward more deterioration and substantial privation and hardship.”

Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, set a low bar for how bad things can be—but some Lebanese say the current situation is worse in some respects. Perversely, the economic crisis may also create further dependence on the political parties that helped create it.

“I don’t really know how many Lebanese will [be] able to stand it: the type of privation that has already set in and that seems likely to worsen,” Heller said. “People say that it’s not really comparable with the experience of the civil war, that the affordability of these basic essentials was not really this bad.”

He noted that some political parties have pivoted to provide a welfare minimum for their own constituents but said, “it’s hard to see how those types of party networks could provide for the whole of the country. It seems inevitable that large parts of the Lebanese population could fall through the cracks.”

David Enders is a Polk Award-winning correspondent and producer based in Beirut and covering the region. Twitter: @davidjenders

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