In the heart of a Beirut neighbourhood close to ground zero of Tuesday's explosion, desperate survivors implored a president inspecting the site to help them save a crumbling country.
Nearly two days after the catastrophe, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, was the first political leader to visit the scene. Neither the Lebanese head of state nor senior ministers had made the journey. Not that they would have been welcome on the seething streets of the Lebanese capital, where a ruling class that had already lost the faith of many is now considered more rancid than ever.
Among the battered buildings of the Gemmayze district, rescuers were picking over the ruins of homes, and volunteers were removing mountains of glass and debris. The cleanup was an apt backdrop for Mr Macron’s street walk, but he had come to talk solutions of another kind, and he wasn’t mincing his words.
"I guarantee you, this aid will not go to corrupt hands," he told an anguished local man. Later, Mr Macron said his arrival in Lebanon – which did not stem from an invitation – was "an opportunity to have a frank and challenging dialogue with the Lebanese political powers and institutions". He said aid from France would focus on humanitarian needs and warned that "if reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink".
Drawing a distinction between aid to help stabilisation and donations that could help safeguard the political fortunes of Lebanon’s leaders was exactly what those swamping Macron, and many other Beirutis still picking up the pieces, wanted to hear.
“They think they’re getting off the hook,” said Ali Fadlallah, an electrical engineer from south Beirut. “They aren’t and they won’t. None of them this time.”
The vows of Lebanese leaders to investigate the cause of the explosion that killed at least 137, wounded 5,000 and caused unprecedented damage across the city have left much of the population unimpressed.
The site of the blast, Beirut port, is a microcosm of the failing Lebanese state. “Every one of the political parties has a guy there, all of them in key positions and all protected by their leader,” said another engineer, Karim Falaha. “The port is one of the most strategic institutions in the country.”
‘Moment of reckoning’
As is often the case in other key areas of Lebanese statecraft, the militant group cum political bloc Hizbullah has a decisive say in what happens at the port, and a strong stake in the outcome of the investigation, the early stages of which have led myriad of institutions to accuse each other of culpability for how nearly 3,000 tonnes of high explosives were kept in a warehouse for nearly six years.
“This is a conflagration of all that is wrong with Lebanon,” said Falaha. “Centred on corruption of the political system, state institutions, the security apparatus and the judiciary. There will be a few scapegoats and the real culprits will not face justice. Will the tier-one villains go to jail? That would mean confronting taboos that have taken us beyond the abyss.
“Who among them can sit in judgment of the other? Even Robert Mugabe’s standards were higher. This is a moment of reckoning like no other, and a failure to seize it will lead to the absolute failure of the Lebanese state.”
Khalil Hellou, a retired military general, said anger was palpable across Lebanon. “The credibility of this ruling class is done, finished,” he said. “Even their supporters do not believe in them. There is no strategy, no clear mission and no vision.
“Throughout history, solutions have been inspired by the Lebanese but implemented by the international community. But this time around we need real help to break the old model of giving aid just to make things go away.
"There remains a huge obstacle: the weapons of Hizbullah and Hizbullah itself. They have turned the country into a large theatre of operations, which includes Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. This is unsustainable, and we all need to acknowledge this."
Rule of law
Bahaa Hariri, a Lebanese billionaire and brother of the former prime minister Saad Hariri, called for an international investigation into the explosion and a reset of how politics is done in Lebanon, where patronage networks run by civil war-era figures have primacy over state institutions
“This symbiotic, bankrupt relationship between officials and warlords must come to an end,” he said from London. “And it will come to an end. We need an international investigation that is not under the control of the government. We do not believe even a word of what they say.”
Charbel Nahas, a former government minister and now head of a nascent political bloc, Citizens in a State, said a sovereign state backed by a rule of law was paramount. "The super-structures of government are governed by rules of behaviour that are accepted as legitimate. What is in place is finished, and where we are heading is frightening."
Earlier on Thursday, an international tribunal announced it was delaying the verdict on four men accused of carrying out a bombing in 2005 that killed the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Saad and Bahaa's father.
“That was meant to be a watershed moment,” said Tareq Hamad, a resident of Tripoli. “But justice delayed is justice denied, and now we find ourselves begging from the French again. We need them to help, and we want them to. But they need to be careful how they do it this time.” – Guardian