‘Dark days’ for Lebanon

Bassem Aly , Saturday 21 Aug 2021

This week’s fuel-tank explosion in Lebanon was more than just another tragic incident in the ongoing political and economic crisis that has hit the country

‘Dark days’ for Lebanon
Vehicles burn very close to where the explosion of the fuel tank took place, in the village of Tlel in Lebanon’s region of Akkar (photo: AFP)

Fewer than two weeks after the first anniversary of the horrific explosions in the Beirut Port last year, the explosion of a fuel tank in Lebanon’s northern Akkra region this week led to the deaths of at least 20 people and 79 injured.

The Lebanese Red Cross shared an infographic on Twitter on Sunday that said that 109 blood units had been delivered and a further 50 collected to treat the injured in the blast. It said that 24 ambulances and 75 emergency medical technicians were present at the scene.

This was the second major explosion that Lebanon has seen over the last year, the first being the blasts in Beirut last August, now described as the largest non-nuclear blast in history. They caused about $15 billion in damage, left 300,000 people homeless, led to the deaths of 200 people, and injured some 6,000 others.

Describing this week’s fuel-tank blast, Reuters said the Lebanese military had discovered a hidden fuel-storage tank and was trying to distribute its contents to people living in the area against a background of nationwide fuel shortages. The Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV Channel quoted eyewitnesses as saying that the blast had been set off by the use of a lighter, though other reports said gunfire had led to the explosion.

Lebanon is witnessing the worst social and economic conditions it has seen in almost a century, and shortages of fuel, with the government recently reducing subsidies, and medicine and the collapse of the local currency have caused the almost total paralysis of day-to-day life.

Pictures of electricity blackouts in Beirut and lines of people waiting to buy petrol have been shared worldwide.

As a result, the Lebanese army has been stepping up the search for black marketeers building up stocks of fuel in attempts to manipulate the market. The army announced on Saturday that it had captured thousands of litres of gasoline and diesel fuel, adding that multiple tankers has also been hijacked last week.

Sarah El-Richani, a professor of mass communications at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said that the fuel crisis could be eased after recent moves by the Lebanese army. Herself from Lebanon, she explained that fuel could be hidden with a view to selling it either on the Lebanese black market or smuggling it to Syria.

The business would be less lucrative after the subsidies were reduced, she said.

Lebanon is seeing “dark days in more ways than one,” she said, describing the explosion in the “marginalised and impoverished” Akkar region as “heart-wrenching”. Although she said that it could expedite the formation of a new government by Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, she described the system in Lebanon as being “rotten to the core”.

“The financial and economic implosion, the Port explosions, and the explosion in Akkar are all the result of years of corruption, negligence, and mismanagement. Mikati, who has faced corruption charges himself in the past, is certainly not a saviour,” she said.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who has called for a judicial investigation into the explosion, tweeted that “the tragedy that has befallen our dear Akkar has made the hearts of all Lebanese bleed.” Mikati responded to protesters who clashed with security forces in front of his Beirut residence by saying that he “understands the cries of the people.”

Sunni leader Saad Al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who resigned due to disagreements with Aoun, called for Aoun and other officials to resign. “The Akkar massacre is no different from the port massacre,” he said.

Al-Hariri and Gebran Bassil, leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and Aoun’s son-in-law, exchanged accusations over the incident, accusing each other of being connected to the owner of the Akkar fuel tank.

The Free Patriotic Movement said the tank’s owner was close to Al-Hariri’s Future Movement, was personally in contact with its MPs Walid Al-Baarini and Mohamed Soliman, and had voted for its MP Tarek Al-Moreabi in previous electoral races.

Future Movement MPs from Akkar said these were false accusations and held Aoun accountable for the “continuing collapse” of Lebanon. The Sunni MPs said they had “the courage to take responsibility before the people,” calling on the security, judicial, and military authorities to expedite investigations into this “crime”.

Residents of Akkar told Sky News Arabia on Sunday that owner of the tank George Rasheed was “politically backed” by Asaad Durgham, a MP from the Free Patriotic Movement. They said that he possessed more than one fuel-storage site in the region, probably explaining why local people stormed and destroyed Rasheed’s residence. 

This situation carries negative implications for the Mikati-led coalition talks, Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Any government formation would require the approval and support of Al-Hariri and Sunni support. But Al-Hariri is now calling for Aoun’s resignation, blaming him for the economic collapse and political paralysis. This will drive Al-Hariri into opposition and complicate Mikati’s efforts to form a government,” Salamey said.

“The Lebanese political establishment is now more interested in expediting the economic and security collapse of the country. The crisis is serving the different sectarian leaderships, mobilising behind them their desperate communities,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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