BEIRUT – Residents of Beirut vented their fury at Lebanon's leaders Thursday during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, blaming them for the deadly explosion that ravaged the capital.
Shouting, "Revolution!" they crowded around the visiting leader who promised to press for reform.
A military judge leading the investigation into Tuesday's blast said 16 employees of Beirut's port, where the explosion took place, had been detained. He said 18 had been questioned, including port and customs officials, the state news agency said.
But while investigators focus on port officials, many Lebanese blame the political elite and the corruption and mismanagement that even before the disaster had pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse.
The Cabinet had been warned by a security agency that a stockpile of explosive chemicals stored at the port was dangerous, Lebanon's customs chief said — a report that could raise questions.
That stockpile of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate set off the blast, apparently when touched off by a fire at the port. The chemical had been left in a warehouse since it was confiscated from an impounded cargo ship in 2013.
The explosion, powerful enough to be felt in Cyprus across the Eastern Mediterranean, killed more than 130 people, wounded thousands and blasted buildings for miles around. Two days later, 300,000 people — more than 12% of Beirut's population — can't return to their homes, officials estimate. Damaged hospitals are struggling to deal with the wounded. Dozens are still missing. Officials have estimated losses at $10 billion to $15 billion.
Furthermore, the disaster struck at a time when unemployment and poverty have mounted. Few have capacity to rebuild, and the government is scraping for dollars.
After talks with Lebanese leaders, Macron announced his country will organize a conference in the next few days with European, American, Middle Eastern and other donors to raise money for food, medicine, housing and other urgent aid. But he warned Lebanon's political elite that he wouldn't give "blank checks to a system that no longer has the trust of its people."
In startling scenes, Macron — whose country once was Lebanon's colonial ruler — presented himself as a champion for the Lebanese. After visiting the devastated port, Macron walked through one of the worst-hit neighborhoods, Gemmayzeh, down a street lined with ruined buildings.
A crowd gathered around him and shouted their anger, chanting, "The people want to bring down the regime!"
Macron told them he would propose "a new political pact" when he met the government. Then, he added, "I will be back on the first of September and if they can't do it, I will keep my responsibility toward you." He promised that French aid would be given out with transparency and "will not go into the hands of corruption."
One woman shouted, "You are sitting with warlords."
He replied, "I'm not here to help them. I'm here to help you." They then hugged.
Notably, none of Lebanon's top politicians have toured damaged residential areas, though President Michel Aoun and others visited the port.