“The explosion is a symbolic manifestation of all the corruption and incompetence that’s happening,” one protester said.
Despite violent suppression, a nationwide lockdown and a state of emergency in Beirut, the nation’s capital, the people of Lebanon are still taking to the streets demanding revolution.
At least 178 people were killed in the Beirut port explosion of Aug. 4, with thousands more injured and an estimated 300,000 displaced from their homes. Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, has estimated the damage at $10 billion to $15 billion.
In the wake of the destruction, the youth of Lebanon are spending their days repairing the damage.
“We clean the rubble, we sort the glass, we sort the wood, we sort the aluminum. We just try to help as much as we can,” said Raymond Tyan, 26,who has spent the last two weeks repairing damaged homes.
But at night, Tyan and his friends take to the streets to protest.
“We want to be like the West. We don’t want to be like Iran or these countries. We want to be a proper democracy,” Tyan said.
Protests have been ongoing in Lebanon since October, when Lebanese from multiple sects banded together to express their anger at a proposed levy on WhatsApp calls. Lebanon’s Cabinet decided to pull the tax proposal, which would have charged 20 cents a day for internet-enabled voice calls.
Lina Hamdan, a former strategist for the United Nations Development Program, said that the focus of the protests has switched recently to the government neglect that is widely blamed for the explosion.
“This great disaster comes from negligence, because of lack of responsibility from the government,” Hamdan said. “The people are angry. They don’t want a peaceful revolution anymore.”
The blast was triggered when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire. The extremely flammable material had been there since arriving on an impounded ship six years ago.
Lebanese people from across the cultural and religious spectrum have united in their demand for answers as to how such dangerous material could be left sitting in a populated port in the heart of downtown Beirut for so long, with no preventative measures.
“I have friends that got shot with live ammunition and rubber bullets when they protested,” said Tyan, who sent NBC News images of his friend Ghady Dagher apparently showing wounds caused by rubber bullets. (The Lebanese Internal Security Forces denied firing bullets at protesters.)
The protesters have called for a new government, demanding that President Michel Aoun and others in power resign so that new voices can begin to rebuild Lebanon. On Aug. 10, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was only in power since January, resigned along with the rest of his Cabinet.
Elias Saade, a 26-year-old activist, told NBC News the change was meaningless in practice and that the protesters were “not going home any time soon.”
“The government’s resignation doesn’t mean anything because it has never been in a position of power,” Saade said. “All of the members of the government are puppets to this Parliament and until we dissolve the Parliament itself, there will be no change in this country.”
Hezbollah, which holds 12 seats in the Lebanese Parliament, has not escaped public anger. The Shia militia group’s figureheads have been among those targeted in the calls for reform, with demonstrators burning an effigy of the group’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Saade compared the government to a “mafia system” that has corrupted Lebanon, run by a political elite lining their own pockets through backend deals.
He said that he and his fellow protesters’ demands are as simple as “electricity, infrastructure and water” — basic utilities that are in short supply.
“It’s not just a physical explosion that happened,” Saade said. “The explosion is a symbolic manifestation of all the corruption and incompetence that’s happening in our government.”
Despite a new lockdown announced Monday because of a spike in coronavirus cases, Lebanese protesters are still taking to the streets. “During coronavirus, some people are saying, ‘We’re dying of hunger, what’s [this] going to do to us?’ People are willing to give their lives for this cause,” Saade said.
But amid the chaos, Hamdan says Lebanon’s people are not scared for the future.
“We are Lebanese, Lebanese are never scared. We’ve been through civil war, so many wars, so many hurdles,” she said. “Now we’re hoping that the next generation will have a real Lebanon, a free independent, and prosperous Lebanon.”