French president Emmanuel Macron has warned Lebanon that the country will continue to sink if the government does not push ahead with much-needed reforms as he landed in Beirut two days after a blast that killed more than 130 people and devastated the capital.
“The priority is unconditional aid and support for the population,” Mr Macron said at the airport. “We will be there for you and won’t give up on you.”
However, he added that he wanted to have a real dialogue with politicians about economic and political reforms that Paris had been demanding for years to fight corruption and stabilise the country. “If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink,” he said.
Many Lebanese blame the ruling elite for the economic malaise and a dysfunctional state, which is seen as a root cause of the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser that can also be used in bombs, at Beirut port on Tuesday. Lebanon was a French mandate in the years after the first world war.
As Mr Macron visited the battered east Beirut neighbourhood of Gemmayze, dozens of volunteers undertaking the clean-up shouted “the people want the fall of the regime” — a slogan used during mass protests last year that forced the resignation of the previous government. Protesters also denounced the Lebanese president, chanting “terrorist, terrorist, Michel Aoun is a terrorist”.
The anger was palpable across Beirut. A decent government “would not have left this bomb in the middle of the country”, said Maria, a 65-year-old shop owner wearing a Lebanese flag bandana around her head.
Mr Macron told crowds that French aid would not go to “corrupt hands”, while adding that he would seek a new deal with Lebanon’s political leaders.
“I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact. I am here today to propose a new political pact to them,” he said. The roots of Lebanon’s political malaise date back to the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990 and the decision to share power through sectarian quotas. Critics say that this system has created an entrenched political class of warlords or “chiefs”, who divide power and influence between themselves along sectarian lines.
Donors have been holding back financial assistance as Lebanon’s economic crisis has deepened because of longstanding frustrations over politicians’ failure to enact reforms as well as concerns about graft and the prominent role of Hizbollah, the militant movement that is part of the coalition government.
“The Lebanese political system plays a huge role in why the country is in the economic state it is in today, and with Lebanon not able to meet the costs of reconstruction or stand on its feet economically, now there’s a chance to send aid that would support its economy but also act as a vehicle for implementing necessary reform,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House.
“With popular anger in Lebanon mounting and with the Lebanese population holding the state responsible for the explosion that devastated much of Beirut, the Lebanese powers have to recognise if they are going to at least retain a degree of power, they have to engage in some measure of reform,” she added.
Beirut was already in talks with the IMF in the hope of receiving a bailout after it defaulted on its $90bn debt pile in March, but those negotiations had ground to a halt because of political infighting in Lebanon.
In an economic recovery plan finalised in April, the government banked on receiving $10bn in international support. The Lebanese pound has collapsed and the inflation rate has risen to about 56 per cent, while the IMF forecasts that the economy will contract 12 per cent this year.
Earlier, Lebanon’s economy minister Raoul Nehme told Sky News Arabia that his cash-strapped country did not have the financial capability to “face the repercussions” of the Beirut port explosion, which is thought to have caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud has put the cost of the damage at $3bn to $5bn. Mr Nehme said that co-operation with the IMF was “the only solution”.
Many countries have pledged humanitarian assistance after the blast destroyed much of Beirut port, which is the vital artery for about three-quarters of Lebanon’s imports.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday morning that the bloc was “mobilising over €33m for first emergency needs with further support being considered” for Lebanon.
The UK has pledged up to £5m in humanitarian funding, while Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has said Washington will “announce a number of things we intend to do to assist the people of Lebanon in the coming days”.
Regional players from Turkey to Iran and oil-rich Gulf states have flown in medical and emergency supplies.
Mr Nehme said grain silos at the port were “totally damaged” in the blast. Aid organisations have warned that the loss of the wheat, the staple food for Lebanon’s poorest, could hit food supplies.
Ms Khatib warned that “without economic and political reform any aid given to Lebanon is only going to end up in the wrong hands”.
Late on Wednesday, Lebanon declared a two-week state of emergency in Beirut and ordered the house arrest of anyone involved in storing volatile chemicals blamed for the huge blast.
The cabinet took the decision as scrutiny mounted over why the authorities allowed the ammonium nitrate to be stored at the port for six years.
Experts said there were strict regulations that were supposed to govern the bulk storage of the chemical.
Lebanese authorities seized an Africa-bound ship carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port in late 2013, according to legal reports at the time. The law firm prosecuting the case said the cargo had been unloaded into a warehouse.
Source: Financial Times