These activists want to end sectarian politics in Lebanon

class=”MuiTypography-root-133 MuiTypography-h1-138″>These activists want to end sectarian politics in Lebanon

Lebanon has 18 recognized religious sects, and sectarianism is built into the country’s political system. But in the wake of the October 2019 protest movement, some are advocating for a different path.

The WorldDecember 2, 2021 · 5:45 PM EST

Lawyer and activist Hussein El Achi helped found a group called Minteshreen that wants an end to Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

Shirin Jaafari/The World

On a recent November day in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, Hussein El Achi points to where he had set up his tent during the protests in 2019.

Achi, a lawyer and political activist, spent weeks at the square, chanting slogans and calling attention to their grievances.

Protesters in 2019 had diverse demands — from the resignation of politicians to more rights for women and LGBTQ people, as well as environmental concerns.

Related: ‘We live paycheck to paycheck’: Workers at a paper factory in Beirut worry about making ends meet in a dire economy

More than two years later, protesters like Achi are no longer looking for change through chanting in the streets. For them, it’s not about blaming politicians for Lebanon’s woes but getting involved themselves — they are taking on the political system in Lebanon.

Taxi drivers block a road with their vehicles during a protest against the increasing prices of gasoline, consumer goods and the crash of the local currency, at Martyrs' Square, in downtown Beirut, Nov. 30, 2021.


Bilal Hussein/AP

Achi helped start a new youth-led political group called Minteshreen that is pushing for a secular state and a different social contract that’s not based on sectarianism.

“For far too long, the youth in Lebanon have been excluded from political life. Sectarian politics ruled, identity politics ruled, tribal politics ruled before October 2019 protests.”

Hussein El Achi , lawyer and activist, Beirut

“For far too long, the youth in Lebanon have been excluded from political life,” Achi said. “Sectarian politics ruled, identity politics ruled, tribal politics ruled before October 2019 protests.”

Lebanon’s political system is based on sectarian power sharing among different groups.

Related: Lebanon’s electricity crisis means life under candlelight for some, profits for others

Under this system, the three key government positions of president, prime minister and speaker are divided between a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim, and a Shiite Muslim.

Rania al-Masri, a political activist and lecturer at the Lebanese American University, said the origins of this system in Lebanon go as far back as the French and British colonial period prior to its independence in 1943.

“They saw us as an amalgamation of 17, 18 different sectarian affiliations that they want us to coexist peacefully, which could not be more insulting and [ahistorical] to how we are,” she said.

Some streets in Beirut have been barricaded by blast walls. Protesters use them as a canvas for anti-government graffiti.


Shirin Jaafari/The World

The way she sees it, the sectarian system denies the Lebanese people a shared identity: It boxes them into the different sects into which they were born.

Instead of focusing on national priorities, she explained, politicians look out for people in their own groups. They divvy up government jobs and funding not based on merit but on political and sectarian allegiance.

Related: Tensions rise over Beirut blast investigation

“Imagine in the United States, if I want to say the number of people with green eyes get to have these public positions and the number of people with brown eyes get to have those public positions, and let’s see if green eyes and blue eyes and brown eyes can coexist together,” she said. “And if you hear how absurd that is for you, that is how absurd it is for me to talk about Druze and Maronites and Greek Orthodox coexisting when they are literally members of my same family.” 

Pushing for a new, secular social contract

Masri and Achi are both members of a younger generation in Lebanon that’s looking for an end to the old sectarian-based political rules. They say this is the only way that the country can pull itself out of the current chaos.

But untangling an old system that is embedded in so much of everyday life in Lebanon and one that benefits powerful individuals is not so easy.

Masri’s party, called “Citizens in a State,” was established in 2016, but she said it has been getting lots of new members since the 2019 protests, including some who have left their sectarian political parties.

Citizens in a State, she added, wants “a negotiated settlement for a transitory power,” a government that has ministers with legislative powers, and then a nationwide election.

They see the power in the local syndicates or alliances of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and dentists.

“This group of organized individuals have lost all their money because they kept their money in the banks and so now, they have the power of negotiating and we are working to organize them.”

Rania al-Masri, political activist, lecturer at the Lebanese American University

“This group of organized individuals have lost all their money because they kept their money in the banks and so now, they have the power of negotiating and we are working to organize them,” Masri said.

(Lebanon is facing a banking crisis and its banks are largely insolvent).

Graffiti from the 2019 protests in Beirut reads “Revolution.”


Shirin Jaafari/The World

Achi’s Minteshreen sees a way out of the sectarian power-sharing system by taking advantage of elements in the Taif agreement, which was signed in 1989 at the end of the Lebanese civil war.

Achi said that Minteshreen has had some success with the student elections and syndicates. But he is also realistic about the challenges ahead.

They face resistance from the older generation and those living outside of major urban centers, where the political sectarian parties have a strong hold on the communities.

Still, both of these Lebanese activists are convinced that the only way forward for their country is to build a new system that is not rooted in sectarian competition.

“At the end of the day, we want to reach a true secular state and we want a new social contract based on secularism,” Achi said.

Ongoing political tensions

Sectarian political tensions came to a head in October when gunfire broke out in the Tayyoune neighborhood of Beirut, between supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal party and those believed to be with the Christian Lebanese Forces party.

Details of what exactly took place remain murky but at least six people died and several were injured.

Recently, signs from the fighting were visible here. One multiple-story building had dozens of bullet holes and broken windows.

This part of town is mostly segregated. Shiite Muslims live on one side, Christians on the other. It’s a painful legacy of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that started in 1975, when this city was divided between mainly Muslim and Christian neighborhoods.

A demarcation line ran through this part of the city. Today, smaller wars and flare-ups continue.

Not only that, in the absence of a functioning state in Lebanon, many people rely on sectarian groups for basic services, said Lea Bou Khater, who has researched labor movements. That makes rejecting the system more complicated.

“Some people have the luxury to say, ‘Well, I don’t need them because they can afford a private insurance,’” Bou Khater said. “They can afford education, they can say, ‘Yeah, they are corrupt, I don’t need them. But most people don’t have this luxury.”

Lebanon is scheduled to hold an election next year. But activists Achi and Masri say they are not counting on elections to bring real change.

Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

Lebanese army soldiers stand guard in front of destroyed ships at the scene where an explosion hit on Tuesday the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 6, 2020. Lebanese army bulldozers plowed through wreckage to reopen roads around Beirut’s demolished port on Thursday as the government pledged to investigate the devastating explosion and placed port officials under house arrest.


Hussein Malla/AP


French President Emmanuel Macron, visiting Beirut following a massive explosion in the city’s port on Thursday, warned that without serious reforms the country would “continue to sink.” Macron’s comments come as Lebanese officials sought to shift blame for the presence of explosives at the city’s port,

The blast Tuesday, which appeared to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate at the city’s port, rippled across the Lebanese capital, killing at least 135 people, injuring more than 5,000 and causing widespread destruction.

It also may have accelerated the country’s coronavirus outbreak, as thousands flooded into hospitals in the wake of the blast. Tens of thousands have been forced to move in with relatives and friends after their homes were damaged, further raising the risks of exposure.

French President Emmanuel Macron visited Thursday amid widespread pledges of international aid. But Lebanon, which was already mired in a severe economic crisis, faces a daunting challenge in rebuilding. It’s unclear how much support the international community will offer the notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional government.

Macron, who viewed the devastated port and was to meet with senior Lebanese officials, said the visit is “an opportunity to have a frank and challenging dialogue with the Lebanese political powers and institutions.”

He said France will work to coordinate aid but warned that “if reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to sink.”

Later, as he toured one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, an angry crowd vented its fury at Lebanon’s political leaders, chanting “Revolution” and “The people want to bring down the regime,” slogans used during mass protests last year.

Macron said he was not there to endorse the “regime” and vowed that French aid would not fall into the “hands of corruption.”

Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath on Wednesday, adding that nearly 300,000 people are homeless.

The head of Lebanon’s customs department meanwhile confirmed in an interview with LBC TV late Wednesday that officials had sent five or six letters over the years to the judiciary asking that the ammonium nitrate be removed because of the dangers it posed.

But Badri Daher said all he could do was alert authorities to the presence of dangerous materials, saying even that was “extra work” for him and his predecessor. He said the port authority was responsible for the material, while his job was to prevent smuggling and collect duties.

The judiciary and the port authority could not immediately be reached for comment. The government said Wednesday that an investigation was underway and that port officials have been placed under house arrest.

The investigation into the explosion is focused on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the port facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

The cargo had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship years earlier. Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia, and had been bound for Mozambique.

The stockpile is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby in what appeared to be a warehouse holding fireworks. Daher, the customs official, said he did not know if there were fireworks near the site.

Another theory is that the fire began when welders were trying to repair a broken gate and a hole in the wall of Hangar 12, where the explosive material was stored. Local news reports say the repair work was ordered by security forces who investigated the facility and were concerned about theft.

Security officials have declined to comment while the investigation is underway. Port officials have rejected the theory in interviews with local media, saying the welders completed their work long before the fire broke out.

Anger is mounting against the various political factions, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group, that have ruled the country since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country’s long-serving politicians are widely seen as being hopelessly corrupt and incapable of providing even basic services like electricity and trash collection.

The tiny Mediterranean country was already on the brink of collapse, with soaring unemployment and a financial crisis that has wiped out people’s life savings. Hospitals were already strained by the coronavirus pandemic, and one was so badly damaged by the blast it had to treat patients in a nearby field.

Dr. Firas Abiad, director general of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the public hospital leading the coronavirus fight, said he expects an increase in cases in the next 10 to 15 days linked to crowding at hospitals and blood donation centers after the blast.

Authorities had largely contained the outbreak by imposing a sweeping lockdown in March and April, but case numbers have risen in recent weeks. A renewed lockdown was to go in effect this week but those plans were canceled after the explosion. The country has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus cases and 68 deaths since February.

“There is no doubt that our immunity in the country is less than before the explosion and this will affect us medium- to long-term,” Abiad said. “We desperately need aid, not only us but all hospitals in Lebanon.”

The explosion was the most powerful blast ever seen in the city, which has survived decades of war and conflict. Several city blocks were left littered with rubble, broken glass and damaged vehicles.

Authorities have cordoned off the port itself, where the blast left a crater 200 meters (yards) across and shredded a large grain silo, emptying its contents into the rubble. Estimates suggested about 85% of the import-reliant country’s grain was stored there.

By Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb/AP

Mourning and anger amid devastation after Beirut explosion; One-third of Afghanistan may have had COVID-19; 75-years since Hiroshima bombing

Mourning and anger amid devastation after Beirut explosion; One-third of Afghanistan may have had COVID-19; 75-years since Hiroshima bombing

The World staff

A damage is seen after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.


Hassan Ammar/AP


Top of The World — our morning news round up written by editors at The World. Subscribe here.

Still reeling from the massive explosion that flattened Beirut’s port on Tuesday, many Lebanese are turning toward anger and frustration over corrupt Lebanese officials for the presence of a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate at the center of the blast. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut today and warned that without serious reforms the country would “continue to sink.”

The blast, which killed at least 137 people and injured more than 5,000, appears to have been caused by an accidental fire that ignited the warehouse at the city’s port, according to Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The devastation in Beirut — with buildings across the city damaged and more than 250,000 people displaced from their homes, forced to move in with relatives and friends — is compounded by the ongoing pandemic and an economic crisis.

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A view of the site of an explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.


Bilal Hussein/AP

After Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut, Lebanon’s government has declared a two-week state of emergency. Emergency crews are still on the scene after nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate produced the blast that killed more than 100 people with several thousand more wounded. And, what would President Trump’s foreign policy look like in a second term? Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton offers his thoughts. Plus, high-resolution images of poop stains via satellites show that there are nearly 20% more emperor penguin colonies than previously thought on the icy continent of Antarctica.

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Negligence blamed for huge Beirut chemical blast

Negligence blamed for huge Beirut chemical blast

Lebanese soldiers search for survivors after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.


Hassan Ammar/AP


Investigators began searching through the wreckage at Beirut’s port Wednesday for clues about the cause of the massive explosion that ripped across the Lebanese capital, and the government ordered port officials put under house arrest amid speculation that negligence was to blame.

The investigation is focusing on how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

International aid flights began to arrive as Lebanon’s leaders struggled to deal with the shocking aftermath of Tuesday’s blast. The country was already crippled by an economic crisis and now the public faults chronic mismanagement and corruption among the ruling elite for the disaster.

The explosion at the port killed at least 135 people and wounded about 5,000, said Health Minister Hamad Hassan.

RelatedLebanese confront devastation after massive Beirut explosion

Hospitals were overwhelmed — one that was damaged in the blast had to evacuate all its patients to a nearby field for treatment.

Buildings were damaged for miles around the city, and Beirut’s governor said Wednesday that hundreds of thousands might not be able to return to their homes for two or three months.

It was the worst single explosion to strike Lebanon in a history filled with destruction during a 1975-1990 civil war, conflicts with Israel and periodic terror attacks.

Warned of ‘dangers’

A senior US Defense Department official and member of the US intelligence community said there were no indications the massive explosion that erupted on Tuesday evening in Lebanon’s capital was the result of an intentional attack by either a nation-state or proxy forces.

Both individuals spoke to The Associated Press under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence briefings publicly. Both officials told the AP that at the moment, the explosion seems to have been caused by improper storage of explosives.

Fueling speculation that sheer negligence was responsible for the accident, an official letter circulating online showed the head of the customs department had warned repeatedly over the years that the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar in the port was a danger, and asked judicial officials for a ruling on a way to remove it.

Ammonium nitrate is a component of fertilizer that is potentially explosive. The 2,750-ton cache had been stored at the port since it was confiscated from a ship in 2013, and on Tuesday it is believed to have detonated after a fire broke out nearby.

The 2017 letter from the customs chief to a judge could not be immediately confirmed, but state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered security agencies to start an immediate investigation into all letters related to the materials stored at the port as well as lists of people in charge of maintenance, storage and protection of the hangar.

In the letter, the customs chief warns of the “dangers if the materials remain where they are, affecting the safety of [port] employees” and asked the judge for guidance on what to do with it. He said five similar letters were sent in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The letter proposes the material be exported or sold to a Lebanese explosives company. It is not known if there was ever a response.

President Michael Aoun vowed before a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday that the investigation would be transparent and that those responsible will be punished. “There are no words to describe the catastrophe that hit Beirut last night,” he said.

After the meeting, the Cabinet ordered an unspecified number of Beirut port officials put under house arrest pending the investigation and declared a two-week state of emergency, effectively giving the military full powers during this time.

The government said that public schools and some hotels will be opened for the homeless and promised unspecified compensation for the victims.

With the Port of Beirut destroyed, the government said imports and exports will be secured through other ports in the country, mostly in Tripoli up north and Tyre down south.

‘Destroy them and their families’

There were signs that public anger went beyond port officials to the country’s long-entrenched ruling class. Political factions have divvied up control of Lebanon’s public institutions, including the port, using them to benefit their supporters, with little actual development. That has translated into crumbling infrastructure, power outages and poor services.

“May the Virgin Mary destroy them and their families,” Joseph Qiyameh, a 79-year-old grocery store owner, said of the political leadership. The blast damaged his store and injured his arm. His wife — who was at home next door — is hospitalized with injuries. Qiyameh doesn’t have the money to fix his business, with his savings locked up in banks by capital controls imposed during the crisis.

A small protest broke out after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri made a public appearance Wednesday, with people chanting slogans against politicians. Fistfights broke out between Hariri’s supporters and protesters. Hariri resigned in October amid nationwide protests.

Residents of Beirut confronted a scene of utter devastation Wednesday. Smoke still rose from the port. The blast knocked out a crater some 200 yards across that filled with seawater. The landscape looked like the sea had taken a bite out of the port, swallowing buildings with it. Much of downtown was littered with damaged vehicles and debris.

Lebanon was already on the brink of collapse, amid a severe economic crisis. Many have lost their jobs and seen their savings evaporate because of a currency crisis. Food security is a worry, since Lebanon imports nearly all its vital goods and its main port is devastated. The government is strapped for cash.

Drone footage shot Wednesday by AP showed how the blast had torn open grain silo buildings, dumping the contents into the detritus generated by the blast. Estimates suggest some 85% of the country’s grain was stored at the now-wrecked facilities.

Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme said all the wheat stored there was contaminated and unusable. But he insisted Lebanon had enough wheat for its immediate needs and would import more, according to the state news agency.

In the Netherlands, a UN-backed tribunal postponed delivery of judgments in the trial of four members of the militant group Hezbollah charged with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The verdicts were moved from Friday to Aug. 18 out of respect for the victims of the blast, the court said.

Emergency aid was starting to filter in. Two planeloads of French rescue workers and aid was headed to Beirut, and French President Emmanuel Macron planned to arrive Thursday to offer support. Lebanon is a former French protectorate and the countries retain close political and economic ties.

The EU planned to send firefighters with vehicles, sniffer dogs and equipment designed to find people trapped in urban areas.

Several jets from Greece, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere carrying medical equipment and supplies arrived at Beirut’s international airport. Turkey was sending search and rescue teams, humanitarian aid, medical equipment and a field hospital, its foreign ministry said. 

By Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam/AP

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