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Journalist Rami Khouri: Beirut Explosion Follows Years of Lebanese Gov’t Incompetence & Corruption

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The explosion in the Port of Beirut, which killed at least 100 people and injured about 4,000 others, is the latest blow to Lebanon, which already faces an economic, political and public health crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic. The blast is believed to have been triggered by 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate inexplicably left unattended in a warehouse for six years. Journalist Rami Khouri says it’s further proof of “the cumulative incompetence, corruption, lassitude, amateurism and uncaring attitude by successive Lebanese governments” that have failed the country. “It’s the ruling political elite that is responsible for this,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the aftermath of this massive explosion at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon that sent a devastating shock wave through the Lebanese capital Tuesday evening, leveling buildings, overturning cars, shattering windows miles from the blast site. More than 100 people have been confirmed dead. Hundreds are still missing. Over 4,000 are injured.

At the time of the blast, Lebanon already facing an economic, political and public health crisis amidst the pandemic, exacerbated by U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. At the White House, President Trump told reporters U.S. military generals believed the explosion was caused by a bomb.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It would seem like it, based on the explosion. I met with some of our great generals, and they just seem to feel that it was. This was not a — some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event. This was a — seems to be, according to them — they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.

AMY GOODMAN: “They think it was” — he’s referring to military generals. Trump offering no evidence for his claim, which was not supported by intelligence agencies. The Pentagon declined to comment, and referred all press questions to the White House. After the explosion, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to offer assistance to the Lebanese people, not the current prime minister, Hassan Diab.

For more, we’re joined by Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow and journalist-in-residence at the American University of Beirut. He’s a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative, columnist at The New Arab, joining us from Cambridge, Massachusetts, was just heading back to Lebanon.

Welcome to Democracy Now! again, Rami Khouri. So, it’s this — I mean, this registered 3.5 on the Richter scale, like an earthquake. Cyprus felt it, miles and miles away. Can you talk about what you think happened? How is it possible that — what is it? — 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate — I mean, two tons took down the Oklahoma City building that killed close to 170 people. This was 2,700 tons, being kept at the port? What do you know, Rami Khouri?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, the information that’s come out from the people who investigated it so far is that the storage shed was also storing some fireworks and other materials nearby, and it was those materials that caught fire or ignited, or something happened because of the heat and humidity, and created a little fire. The fire department was there to put it out. And then that fire ignited the ammonium nitrate.

But the real story is not just the 3.5 magnitude Richter scale measurement. It’s the 9.0 magnitude political scale measurement that this is going to unleash, because looking backwards and looking forwards, this explosion is a consequence of the cumulative incompetence, corruption, lassitude, amateurism and uncaring attitude by successive Lebanese governments, going back 10, 15 years, that has brought the Lebanese people to a point of pauperization and desperation. They don’t have enough water. They don’t have electricity. They don’t have jobs. They don’t have reasonably priced food. Education is declining. Every dimension of life in Lebanon has declined, steadily, uninterruptedly, for the last 15, 20 years.

And it’s the ruling political elite that is responsible for this. And that’s — looking back and looking forward, because this amount of ammonium nitrate was allowed to be stored there, when people knew about it — other governments knew about it and did nothing about it. And people were talking to judges to pass a ruling to get the stuff out of there, because it’s dangerous, and nobody did anything. So, therefore, the political shocks, the aftershocks, are really going to be, I think, the significant dimension of this, beyond the humanitarian suffering that we’re now seeing dealt with.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about the politics in Lebanon, also the U.S. relationship, as you have President Trump immediately calling this — he was holding a coronavirus press briefing and, asked about Lebanon, said a bomb, an attack, he knew. Military generals were not backing him up on this, though he said they were the ones who said it. And then you have Pompeo, the secretary of state, calling not the current prime minister, but the previous prime minister.

RAMI KHOURI: Well, this is the ideological amateurism and ignorance of the American government being exhibited at the level of the highest political class in the White House and in the State Department. These people don’t care about Lebanon or the Arab world. They don’t know anything about it. They’re basically following a rule book that is dictated by internal American politics linked heavily to fundamentalist Christian extremist skinheads who are very, very linked close to Israeli settler colonialists. And this is something that’s been consistent for the last three-and-a-half years, and it will continue to be there.

They’re campaigning against Iran and Hezbollah. And anything that happens in Lebanon that’s bad, they’re going to link it to Hezbollah and Iran. And so, this is predictable. It’s amateurish. It falls into the realm of criminality and cruelty at the same time, and amateurism. So I would completely discard anything that Trump or Pompeo says about this.

And the fact that they called Hariri, not the prime minister or the president, is fascinating, because they don’t care about humanitarian suffering. Three hundred thousand people have lost their homes. They don’t care about that. All they want to do is talk to somebody in there who can link them, say, to the Saudis or the Emiratis, or somebody who can help them push against Hezbollah and Iran.

And the terrible irony is that this policy has only strengthened Hezbollah and Iran over the years. And the Lebanese people are not focused on that. They’re focused on recreating a legitimate, credible, effective and humanistic government system that treats its own citizens as human beings and not as animals. The Lebanese people feel — and this is not just Lebanon, by the way. Iraq, Palestine, Algeria, Sudan, other Arab countries, Egypt — the ordinary people feel that their government treats them like animals, without rights, without feelings, without voice. And the Lebanese and others are out in the streets, demonstrating now for several years. Actually, since 2010, there’s been nonstop public demonstrations all across the Arab world. There’s more happening in Jordan now, for different reasons.

So, this is part of a regional reality, which is the pauperization and dehumanization of the Arab citizenry by an increasingly militarized state. And if you see this, if you just look at — any time you see pictures of officials, they’re surrounded by soldiers and troops. So, the Lebanese people are trying to peacefully demonstrate to relegitimize their own government system to address the issues they have. And Pompeo and Trump are adding to the misery and the complexities and the complications of these systems, and so I would not pay any attention to Trump or Pompeo.

AMY GOODMAN: What was also raised yesterday is, at the end of the week, on Friday, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is due to deliver its verdict on the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister, Rafic Hariri, the father of the former prime minister, more recent prime minister, Saad Hariri, and 21 others — the four defendants, it is alleged, having ties to Hezbollah. Do you see any links here which would — which is perhaps what Trump was somehow referring to in this comment that didn’t have much backing from U.S. intelligence?

RAMI KHOURI: I don’t see any link whatsoever, except in the mind of people like Trump, who are desperate to find any reason to push their right-wing, Christian fundamentalist, pro-Zionist, settler-colonial agenda and pin anything bad on Hezbollah or Iran or their supporters in the region. There’s absolutely no evidence. And even his own generals came out and said, “Look, we don’t see any evidence.” So, like I said, don’t pay any attention to anything Donald Trump or Pompeo say about the Middle East. It is amateurish. It is based on ignorance. It is ideologically driven. It is emotional nonsense.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about U.S. sanctions, newly imposed, targeting the Syrian government, also undermining Hezbollah in Lebanon?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, this is part of a legacy that goes back several decades, that the U.S. keeps either attacking or threatening to attack or sanctioning Arab governments or Arab organizations, like Hezbollah or Hamas or others, that they don’t like. And the terrible irony is that this has been a failed policy. If you go back over the last 20 years, if you track the American policy of taking measures to pressure Iran, whether in Lebanon or in Yemen or any other country, where they’re trying to pressure Iran, directly or indirectly, and you track against that the extensive and expanding links of the Iranian government with governments and individuals around the Middle East, you’ll find that the American pressure has only led to more complications in the region that have opened opportunities, vacuums, for the Iranians to step in, or, increasingly, the Chinese and the Russians to step in or the Turks to step in. So, this idea that more sanctions are going to bring about any results is sophomoric. It’s childish. But this is —

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what kind of investigation you think will be done? The Lebanese government said they’ll conduct an investigation. People are calling for an independent, international investigation, not trusting the government. And what you think, how this could be conducted?

RAMI KHOURI: Absolutely. This is really central now. The Lebanese people, broadly speaking, don’t trust their government anymore, because they’ve seen the consequences of their government’s actions over the last 10, 15, 20 years. And respectable people — academics, civil society activists, whatever — have spoken out in the last 24 hours, saying, “We need an international investigation. We cannot leave this in the hands of the Lebanese government.” Some members of Parliament have already said they’re going to resign. And people are asking for not only an international investigation, but immediately to detain the port officials and other officials who knew about this — detain them preemptively and then give them a fair trial when the investigation is done.

But this is really the critical point now. The transition from the humanitarian catastrophe of the explosion, which we have to deal with for the next two, three, four weeks, until things stabilize — the transition from that to a political reconfiguration of the Lebanese political system, that’s the real aftermath of this explosion. And you see it in people saying — for instance, Lebanese saying, “Don’t give aid money to the government. They’ll steal it. They’ve stolen everything else. They’re going to steal the aid money. Give aid money to the Lebanese Red Cross, to NGOs, to hospitals. But don’t give it to the Lebanese government.”

So, this is an important point, because the ability of the Lebanese government, like all the Arab governments in the last 20 years or so, to continue a policy of autocratic, authoritarian, militarized policymaking, that has led to the pauperization of a majority of Arabs — around 70% of Arabs are poor or vulnerable now. And that is quickly increasing with the COVID-19 and other things, like this bombing. The ability of Arab governments to maintain these cruel policies is very much linked to the support they get from international parties, including the Americans, the French, the British, the Russians — everybody. There’s nobody that comes out of this modern legacy of Arab state failures — nobody comes out looking good.

The French president is supposed to go to Lebanon today. People are very much anxious to hear what he says. And if he just comes and meets with the Lebanese government and makes happy statements about “we will always support you,” people are going to jeer at him and tell him to go home. So, this is a —

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Rami Khouri, just last week, Save the Children reported half a million children are hungry in Beirut. And you have Beirut importing 80% of its food. And now the port has now been completely leveled. So, in this last 30 seconds, what you see needs to happen immediately for this humanitarian catastrophe?

RAMI KHOURI: There needs to be massive, coordinated, international, Arab and internal Lebanese support to nongovernmental organizations. And the Lebanese government should be told to just watch how you do this properly, and let the people of Lebanon and their many, many civil society groups and humanitarian groups get the job done.

The humanitarian need is urgent. There’s 300,000 people who have apparently lost their homes. Their homes were bombed out. So, water, food, energy — people get electricity two or three hours a day. This is going to be terrible for the next month, until new materials come in to replace what was destroyed at the port — wheat, foodstuffs, medicines, oil, things like that. So, that’s really what needs to be done. Let the Lebanese people carry out the job of addressing their needs. And this is an opportunity to show how it can be done by sidelining the Lebanese government, as well. And this is what many Lebanese are calling for.

AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, we want to thank you for being with us, senior public policy fellow, journalist-in-residence at American University of Beirut, also senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and a columnist at The New Arab.

When we come back, this moment of the Big Tech CEOs, the Big Four, testifying before Congress. Stay with us.

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