Police fired teargas at protesters in Beirut on Saturday after thousands turned out in the city centre to demand accountability for one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions the world has seen.
Driven by anger at the corruption and incompetence that appears to have fostered Wednesday’s tragedy, a crowd gathered in Martyrs Square, where activists have erected a mock gallows for Lebanon’s top politicians.
More than 150 people died in the blast, around 5,000 were injured and at least 60 are still missing, according to the health ministry.
The protesters chanted “the people want the fall of the regime,” and held posters saying “leave, you are all killers”. When a group tried to break through the barrier blocking a street leading to parliament, security forces used teargas.
“We want a future with dignity, we don’t want the blood of the victims of the explosion wasted,” said Rose Sirour, one of the demonstrators. No one in the streets set any store by government promises to hold those responsible to account.
Lebanon’s Kataeb party, a Christian group that opposes the government backed by the Iran-aligned Hezbollah, announced the resignation of its MPs on Saturday.
The wife of the Dutch ambassador to Lebanon was named as the latest victim. Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, 55, died on Saturday after being seriously injured by the explosion as she stood in her Beirut home, the Dutch foreign ministry said.
Four days after the blast, the chances of finding anyone else alive under the rubble are fading, even though professional search and rescue teams have taken over the search for survivors.
As the dust from the explosion settles, its political fallout is only just beginning to be felt. Lebanon has been roiled for months by popular anger over the country’s rapid economic collapse, which cratered the value of the national currency and destroyed citizens’ life savings virtually overnight.
Mass protests last year eventually toppled the prime minister, but the system that he presided over survived almost intact, and in the face of economic pressure and the coronavirus the movement faded.
Now frustrations with the ruling elite have been refuelled by fury over the blast.
“Today is the first demonstration since the explosion, an explosion in which any one of us could have died,” said Hayat Nazer, an activist who has contributed to solidarity initiatives for blast victims.
“This is the biggest warning for everyone now that we don’t have anything to lose anymore. Everyone should be in the streets today, everyone,” she told AFP.
Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, vowed on Friday that all officials responsible for the explosion would be brought to justice regardless of their positions.
Few in Beirut, however, have any confidence that a government that allowed an enormous stockpile of deadly explosive to sit for years in flimsy sheds in the heart of Beirut can be trusted to investigate the accident.
In one sign of disgust with the entire political class, one of the country’s leading broadcasters, LBC, announced it would no longer broadcast any political speeches or statements by leaders about a promised investigation into the catastrophe.
The unprecedented boycott of Lebanese leaders and officials meant neither speeches by Aoun, or the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, were broadcast on LBC on Friday.
France called for an international inquiry into the disaster, already regarded as one of the biggest industrial accidents in history.
The site of the explosion is also likely to exacerbate its economic impact and hamper reconstruction, because it destroyed Lebanon’s only functional grain silos and dramatically limited its ability to receive imports by sea.
Aoun, however, has already rejected widespread calls for an international investigation, telling a reporter he saw it as an attempt to “dilute the truth”. He also suggested that “foreign interference” may have been to blame, something many Lebanese see as laying the groundwork for powerful players to avoid justice.