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Lebanese Government Faces Collapse Amid Protests Over Blast, Economic Crisis

The Beirut explosion has intensified public outrage over long-standing government dysfunction.

The Lebanese government may be on the verge of collapse amid protests over the massive port explosion that devastated much of Beirut and killed at least 200 people and injured thousands. At least four ministers and nine members of Parliament have resigned. “The dominoes are falling,” says Dion Nissenbaum, a Beirut-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, who led an investigation into the official neglect that preceded last week’s explosion, and says it has intensified public outrage over long-standing government dysfunction, calling it “the straw that’s broken the camel’s back here.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Multiple sources are reporting the Lebanese government is on the brink of collapse amidst protests over last week’s massive explosion that devastated much of Beirut and killed at least 200 people, injuring thousands. Dozens are still missing, many of them foreign workers. The explosion was triggered by 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate left unattended in a warehouse at the port for over six years.

So far, at least three ministers and nine members of Parliament have resigned, including the justice minister, the information minister and the environment minister. The prime minister, Hassan Diab, said Saturday the only solution is to hold early elections. As we broadcast, some outlets are reporting Diab will soon submit his resignation. Protesters have also called for a rally to demand the ouster of President Michel Aoun. Al Jazeera reports a Lebanese judge has begun questioning the heads of the country’s security agencies about the explosion.

This comes after thousands of protesters in Beirut stormed government institutions and clashed with security forces over the weekend and put up symbolic nooses at Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to hang politicians whose corruption and negligence, they say, is responsible for the blast, as well as Lebanon’s deep economic crisis.

PROTESTER 1: [translated] Our first reaction after the explosion was that we wanted to clean, to help the people that have been affected. We cleaned the first day, the second day, the third day. And then, that’s it. We wanted to make our voices heard. What happened is not something new; it has been like this for years. This is unacceptable. It has to end.

PROTESTER 2: And then, yesterday, as soon as we arrived, they started tear-gassing us. There was sound bombs. There was live bullets. Not what I expected at all from a country who has already lost so much.

AMY GOODMAN: International leaders have pledged at least $300 million in humanitarian assistance that will be, quote, “directly delivered to the Lebanese population.”

In a minute, we’ll be joined by Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum, who is in Beirut. He went to the blast site on Saturday a few hours before the protests broke out, and filmed journalists there as they questioned the prime minister.

EMMA MURPHY: But are you going to go onto the streets today or this weekend and speak to people about the tragedy?

PRIME MINISTER HASSAN DIAB: I’m not sure when I’m going on the streets, but I’m part of the people.

EMMA MURPHY: Are you afraid of people’s fury?

PRIME MINISTER HASSAN DIAB: I’m not afraid of people’s fury, but, of course, I have —

EMMA MURPHY: But do they have a right to be furious?

PRIME MINISTER HASSAN DIAB: Absolutely, they have the right to be angry and furious, not just because of this. This is absolutely diabolical, what happened. But, however, they are also furious even before that for three decades of unbelievable corruption.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lebanon’s Prime Minister Diab, speaking at the blast site.

For more, we are joined in Beirut, Lebanon, by Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum, who co-wrote their investigation headlined “Behind the Beirut Explosion: Seven Years of Official Neglect.” Dion’s 4-year-old daughter Iman was injured in the blast. We spoke last week to his wife, Dr. Seema Jilani, the day after the blast.

Dion, welcome to Democracy Now! As we speak, is it true that Lebanon’s government is falling?

DION NISSENBAUM: It’s true. In between the time that you started your news broadcast and now, a fourth minister, the finance minister, has announced his resignation. So, dominoes are falling. It does seem like the prime minister is reluctant to step aside, but if enough Cabinet ministers resign, it will effectively become a caretaker government one way or another.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened over the weekend, these mass protests. Talking about a hard-hit population, I mean, already dealing with the pandemic — you see all these masked protesters in the streets — and then, last week on Tuesday, this massive explosion that rocked and leveled a part of the capital city, Beirut, killing — now the number is what? Two hundred. Over 5,000 people are injured.

DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah. You know, one thing to remember about this government is that this is meant to be a technocratic government. It was installed after last fall’s very joyful and peaceful anti-corruption protests that brought down the former prime minister, Saad Hariri. So this was a government that was meant to step in and fix the problems, and not be too tied the politicians that have run this country for decades. And there was wariness when they started, that they really weren’t going to be able to do that.

And as you just laid out all of the problems, there’s hyperinflation. The currency has collapsed. People can’t buy basic goods. The power outages here are up to 22 hours a day. This was all before the explosion. And then this incredible tragedy happens on this beautiful city, and people at first think, you know, it must be Israel, it must be part of a war. And when people find out that it appears to be the result of government negligence — we still, of course, have to find out what the trigger was for this, but the fact that they stored all of this ammonium nitrate in this warehouse for years, knowing that it was a powder keg, it’s just basically been the straw that’s broken the camel’s back here, and people now have absolutely no faith in this government. They’re out in the streets. People are disillusioned, disenchanted, and, you know, they’re going to look for some sort of change again.

AMY GOODMAN: Dion, you tracked where this ship came from. Just tell us, very quickly, before we talk about the mass protests and what you saw in the streets, what people are calling for, what happened in 2013. Talk about this ship that came through and why it ended up with this massive amount of ammonium nitrate. I mean, just two tons of it took down the Oklahoma City building, killing almost 170 people, years ago. This is 2,700 tons of it.

DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah. You know, there’s a lot of questions we don’t have answered about this ship. But we know that it was — it came from Georgia. It was supposed to be going to Mozambique. Those were the letters. It stopped off in Beirut. And —

AMY GOODMAN: This is Georgia, the old Soviet bloc country.

DION NISSENBAUM: Yes, yes. Not —


DION NISSENBAUM: Yes, yes, of course. And it stopped off in Lebanon. There was a series of bureaucratic and financial issues that came up. It was here to try and load on some more cargo to help pay its way to get down south. And then it was deemed too dangerous to travel with the weight. And then it basically was held at the port, and the crew was held on board, and they were saying, “We’re sitting on top of a powder keg.” And then it became mired in this bureaucratic travails for years. It was eventually offloaded to warehouses. The ship itself sank.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the workers were held on this ship for what? Like 11 months, before they were —


AMY GOODMAN: And they, themselves, said they’re sitting on a powder keg?

DION NISSENBAUM: That’s right. They were putting up posters and sending back photographs, saying, “We’ve got to get out of here. You know, we’re sitting on a time bomb,” essentially.

AMY GOODMAN: And the ship was headed to Mozambique?

DION NISSENBAUM: You know, these are questions that I will have to tell you we are still searching for answers for. That’s what it said at the time. We have some reporting from people in Mozambique saying that they had no indications it was supposed to be coming there. There is an ongoing investigation. We’re doing an investigation. Journalists from around the world are doing investigations to determine what this — where this was going, why it was there, what purposes people were intending to use for it, why they never got rid of it. But, you know, there are more questions than answers at this point about this ship.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they have this volatile substance being held at the Port of Beirut. How many people knew about it? Early on, after Tuesday, they said they arrested some port guards, who were in charge of what? I mean, they can’t be in charge of protecting it.

DION NISSENBAUM: They’ve arrested 19 people, including the people that run the port. You know, they are going to likely be scapegoats. You know, the government official at the highest levels new about this for years. This was not a hidden secret. The port officials tried repeatedly with the courts to try and auction it off or sell it in some way. It was caught in this legal tussle for years. They were apparently going to the wrong court to ask for this, and the court kept saying, “We’re not the people that can approve this.” But they kept asking the same court over and over again. So, it’s not clear why those people were asking this court, that wasn’t the right forum to ask for it. But everybody knew it was there. And as I said, it’s a tragedy of errors that they never moved it, they never acted on it over more than six years, as you said.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the scene down at this protest — you were there before the protesters gathered — the questioning of the prime minister, and then what the protesters are demanding. I mean, the day after the explosion, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, came and visited Beirut. Ultimately, the tear gas — the protesters were tear-gassed with French tear gas, is that right?

DION NISSENBAUM: I don’t know about the provenance of the tear gas itself, but certainly there was a lot of anger at the prime minister for not turning out before the president of France — the prime minister of France came. There is a lot of real anger on the streets. And the prime minister is seen now as an ineffective leader. I don’t know how you’re going to have him lead an effective investigation with everything that is happening at this point.

When I was at the blast site, there was no sign of actual investigation going on. All you had was divers searching for bodies. All you had was dogs searching for bodies. They’re picking up the grain and the corn, leaving the country devastated, on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. You know, it’s tragedy upon tragedy here. And the fact that the president of France was the one to come here and go out on the streets and meet the people, before the prime minister of Lebanon, really sort of drove home the point for a lot of people that this is not a government of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, their demands? And you were recording as the prime minister of Lebanon was being questioned by reporters. But the demands of the protesters in the streets? And will these protests continue even after the current government, well, what looks like, falls?

DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah. So, what happens when this government falls is it becomes a caretaker until they can put in a new caretaker government, and then you have the negotiations start over who’s going to be in the new caretaker government. And the last time they did this, they ended up with this government, that really didn’t have the confidence of the people.

So, there will be continued protests for an effective government. And you already have intense pressure coming from Paris and Washington for the new government to try and distance itself from Hezbollah, the militant and political group here that has significant power and is allied with Iran. So, you’re facing a number of pressures on Lebanon from various points. You’ve got U.S. and France trying to put pressure for their agenda. You’ve got people in the streets looking for some sort of systemic changes to the political sectarian system here and the corruptive system here that’s created this layer upon layer of problems for this country. It’s difficult for many of us here to see things getting better in the near term for Lebanon.

AMY GOODMAN: Dion, I wanted to end by asking how Iman is, your 4-year-old daughter. We spoke with your wife, Dr. Seema Jilani, last week, right after the blast. You had both just raced her to the hospital. Talk about what happened to Iman and how she’s doing now.

DION NISSENBAUM: Thank you. Thank you for asking. Yes, she was the most seriously injured of the three of us in the blast. I tried to shield her with my body as the glass and the wood blasted through our apartment, threw myself on top of her. We were able to get her down into an ambulance. And you have the footage of my wife singing lullabies to her in the ambulance as we tried to get to the hospital. The doctors were doing amazing work in a mass casualty situation. Hats off to all of the medical professionals here, who handled that situation across the city.

Iman was able to get out of the hospital after about a day, with lacerations. She’s got wounds over her arm and legs and abdomen. She’s walked out of the hospital. She limped out on her own two feet. She’s a very brave girl. And, you know, she’s watching a lot of screen time these days as we try and just kind of turn the page. She said to us over the weekend, she said, “Maybe we could move somewhere where there aren’t explosions?”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re showing video right now of her just walking very slowly. And the hospitals, Dion, I mean, that are so hard hit anyway from the COVID virus — you just got Iman into a hospital before they closed its doors — and now facing thousands and thousands of people injured in this blast?

DION NISSENBAUM: Yeah, and the coronavirus, of course, is a major issue here. Several hospitals here lost all of their windows as a result of the blast, as well. Some of them did have to shut. The hospital we were at was hit, and they continue to operate. The strains on the system here are just mounting. The doctors and the nurses and the medical teams here do amazing work. There are aid groups in the streets treating people in tents, suturing people up in the ruins. So, they really are some of the heroes here. And if there’s a silver lining, it’s really in the people, the medical teams and the volunteers that are out in the streets here helping the country rebuild.

AMY GOODMAN: Dion Nissenbaum, I want to thank you for being with us, Beirut-based Wall Street Journal reporter, co-wrote the investigation, “Behind the Beirut Explosion: Seven Years of Official Neglect.” His 4-year-old daughter Iman injured in the blast.

Next up, we look at how the new postmaster general, major Trump fundraiser, with massive investments in U.S. post office competitors, is shaking up the Postal Service and slowing down mail delivery just as President Trump escalates his attacks on mail-in voting. Stay with us.


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