Lebanon’s leaders face rage, calls for reform after blast

Lebanon’s leadership faced growing rage after a massive explosion laid waste to large parts of central Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 07 August 2020

Lebanon’s leaders face rage, calls for reform after blast

  • State media reported late Thursday that security forces fired tear gas in central Beirut to disperse dozens of anti-government demonstrators
  • Some protesters were injured

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s leadership faced growing rage after a massive explosion laid waste to large parts of central Beirut, with security forces firing tear gas at demonstrations late Thursday as international leaders called for reform.
Shock has turned to anger in a traumatized nation where at least 149 people died and more than 5,000 were injured in Tuesday’s colossal explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse.
To many Lebanese, it was tragic proof of the rot at the core of their governing system, which has failed to halt the deepest economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war and has plunged millions into poverty.
State media reported late Thursday that security forces fired tear gas in central Beirut to disperse dozens of anti-government demonstrators enraged by the blast.
Some in the small protest were wounded, the National News Agency reported.
Earlier, visiting French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to lead international emergency relief efforts and organize an aid conference in the coming days, promising that “Lebanon is not alone.”
But he also warned that the country — already in desperate need of a multi-billion-dollar bailout and hit by political turmoil since October — would “continue to sink” unless it implements urgent reforms.
Speaking of Lebanon’s political leaders, Macron said “their responsibility is huge — that of a revamped pact with the Lebanese people in the coming weeks, that of deep change.”
The International Monetary Fund, whose talks with Lebanon started in May but have since stalled, warned that it was “essential to overcome the impasse in the discussions on critical reforms.”
The IMF urged Lebanon — which is seeking more than $20 billion in external funding and now faces billions more in disaster costs — “to put in place a meaningful program to turn around the economy” following Tuesday’s disaster.
Macron’s visit to the small Mediterranean country, a French protectorate during colonial times, was the first by a foreign head of state since the disaster.
The French president visited Beirut’s harborside blast zone, a wasteland of blackened ruins, rubble and charred debris where a 140-meter-wide (460-foot-wide) crater has filled with seawater.
As he inspected a devastated pharmacy, crowds outside vented their fury at the country’s “terrorist” leadership, shouting “revolution” and “the people want an end to the regime!.”
Later Macron was thronged by survivors who pleaded with him to help get rid of their reviled ruling elite.
Another woman implored Macron to keep French financial aid out of the reach of Lebanese officials, accused by many of their people of rampant graft and greed.
“I guarantee you that this aid will not fall into corrupt hands,” the president pledged.
Macron later told BFMTV he was not presenting Lebanon’s leadership with a “diktat” after some of the political class criticized his remarks as interference.
Compounding their woes, Lebanon recorded 255 coronavirus cases Thursday — its highest single-day infection tally — after the blast upended a planned lockdown and sent thousands streaming into overflowing hospitals.
The disaster death toll rose from 137 to 149 on Thursday evening, the health ministry said, and was expected to further rise as rescue workers kept digging through the rubble.
Even as they counted their dead, many Lebanese were consumed with anger over the blast.
“We can’t bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go,” said 30-year-old Mohammad Suyur.
The small demonstration on Thursday night, as well as a flood of angry social media posts, suggested the disaster could reignite a cross-sectarian protest movement that erupted in October but faded because of the grinding economic hardship and the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun have promised to put the culprits responsible for the disaster behind bars.
A military prosecutor announced 16 port staff had been detained over the blast.
But trust in institutions is low and few on Beirut’s streets hold out hope for an impartial inquiry.
Amid the fury and gloom, the explosion’s aftermath has also yielded countless uplifting examples of spontaneous solidarity.
Business owners swiftly posted offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.
Lebanon’s diaspora, believed to be nearly three times the tiny country’s five million population, has rushed to launch fundraisers and wire money to loved ones.
In Beirut, volunteers handled much of the cleanup.
Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer, said: “We don’t have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands.”


Egypt extends measures to boost country’s struggling tourism sector

Updated 13 min 50 sec ago

Egypt extends measures to boost country’s struggling tourism sector

  • The measures include the waiving of visa fees until April 30 next year for tourists visiting the governorates of South Sinai, the Red Sea, Luxor and Aswan
  • Businesses that operate within the tourism industry, including hotels, will not have to pay any fees or electricity, water and gas bills until Dec. 31 this year

CAIRO: The Egyptian government has extended the duration of a number of policies and incentives designed to boost the country’s struggling tourism sector, which has been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures include the waiving of visa fees until April 30 next year for tourists visiting the governorates of South Sinai, the Red Sea, Luxor and Aswan.

Businesses that operate within the tourism industry, including hotels, will not have to pay any fees or electricity, water and gas bills until Dec. 31 this year. In addition, all debts owed by companies in the sector, including amounts accrued before the pandemic began, will be rescheduled, with no repayments due until Jan. 1.

A flight incentive program, which includes discounted airport fees for airlines, was extended until Dec. 31.

The government said that their decision to extend the measures beyond the previously announced end date of Oct. 31 is designed to support the winter tourism season, which runs from Nov. 1 until April 30.

The global tourism sector has been particularly badly affected by the effects of the pandemic. It is vital to the economies of many nations, including Egypt, but has effectively been closed down due to lockdowns and travel restrictions around the world.

Bassem Halqa, who represents workers in Egypt’s tourism industry, said that the decision to waive visa fees for some of the country’s most popular destinations is a very important step in efforts to encourage tourists to return, and will have a positive impact on sector.

However, he called for the initiative to be extended to cover additional destinations, such as Cairo, Alexandria and Giza. He also urged the government to allow public beaches and hotel gyms to reopen.