Thursday, January 28

Lebanon assembly green-signals state of emergency in Beirut after deadly blast

Lebanese are furious at a political leadership that allowed a large shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate fertiliser to languish for years in a port warehouse despite repeated safety warnings. AFP/Files

BEIRUT: A two-week state of emergency in Lebanon’s capital that was declared after last week’s gigantic and deadly explosion has been approved by the country’s parliament, giving the army greater powers to suppress resurgent protests.

The colossal blast that killed 171 people and wounded 6,500 has reignited street protests demanding the ouster of the entire political elite, dominated by former warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war.

Dozens of demonstrators shouted as lawmakers arrived at parliament to ratify the emergency measure, but protesters were outnumbered by security forces and failed to block the MPs’ cars.

Lebanese are furious at a political leadership that allowed a large shipment of hazardous ammonium nitrate fertiliser to languish for years in a port warehouse despite repeated safety warnings.

“You have destroyed us! Leave!” demanded one social media post, calling for more street protests.

An AFP investigation found that until the eve of the blast, officials had exchanged warnings over the cargo, but did nothing despite experts’ fears it could cause a major conflagration.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned with his cabinet Monday but still leads a transitional administration.

The state of emergency formally approved by the parliament allows the army to close down assembly points and prohibit gatherings deemed threats to national security.

It also expands the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians, according to the non-government group The Legal Agenda.

The army can also raid homes at any time and place under house arrest anyone engaged in activities considered to threaten security, it added.

The move worries Lebanon’s 10-month-old protest movement that had faded amid the coronavirus pandemic and deepening economic hardship, but which has returned to the streets with force since the August 4 disaster.

Political deadlock

Human Rights Watch said it was “very concerned” the state of emergency would serve “as a pretext to crack down on protests and snuff out the very legitimate grievances of a large segment of the Lebanese population”.

A military official said the now formalised state of emergency would place all security forces under the command of the army, which would oversee the “post-explosion phase”.

The official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak on the issue, stressed that it would not lead to “a crackdown” on civil freedoms.

“We support the right to peaceful protest, even during a state of emergency,” he said.

The massive explosion, widely blamed on official negligence, has renewed calls from Lebanon’s international partners for overdue reforms to the political system and to shore up the deeply indebted economy.

Beirut was awaiting the arrival of French Defence Minister Florence Parly and David Hale, the top career diplomat at the US State Department.

Hale, who was to arrive for a three-day visit, will “stress the urgent need to embrace fundamental economic, financial and governance reform”, a statement said.

“He will underscore America’s willingness to support any government that reflects the will of the people and is genuinely committed to and acting upon such a reform agenda.”

But officials did not appear to be making rapid progress toward naming a new cabinet, a process which could take months.

The president’s office had yet to schedule parliamentary consultations to name a new premier.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri on Thursday called on authorities “to speed up the process of forming a cabinet” that can spearhead reforms.

The international community is pushing for a cabinet comprised of independents who could win the support of protesters, as well as representatives of top political parties to deter them from obstructing the government’s work, a Western diplomatic source told AFP.

But feedback so far from Lebanon’s top political players “has not been encouraging” with many of them dismissing pressure from the street “as not very strong,” the source said.

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