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Unrest In Beirut Intensifies After Last Week's Deadly Explosion

NOEL KING, HOST:

This is what it sounded like in the streets of Beirut over the weekend...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Crosstalk).

KING: ...Thousands of people furious at their government. Last week, an explosion killed more than 150 people and left tens of thousands homeless. Right now that explosion is being attributed to government negligence. Kim Ghattas is with us on Skype from Beirut this morning. She's a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is a think tank. Kim, good morning.

KIM GHATTAS: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KING: We're happy to have you. What happened on the streets of Beirut this weekend? What did you see?

GHATTAS: An explosion of rage, Noel. I was down on Martyrs' Square as the protesters started gathering on Saturday. There's real anger, real rage in Beirut because of the explosion that happened last week, which comes on top of nine months of utter mismanagement of the country, devaluation of the currency, people's savings wiped out. This is a humanitarian crisis now wrapped up in an economic crisis, a financial crisis and a social crisis.

Protests in Lebanon have been ongoing since last October. There was a revolution that started here, and people today, after this latest conflagration, are really at their wits' end. They're angry. They're enraged, and they feel that the country is really on its knees. The anger that I saw on the streets of Beirut over the weekend is something that I've never witnessed before. People are in mourning but want to down the government, the political leadership, and they're vowing for revenge.

KING: It sounds like what you're saying is you have experienced or witnessed a lot of protests in Lebanon. There is something about this moment that may be different. Without asking you to speculate, is there something that makes this moment different, do you think?

GHATTAS: It does feel different, Noel, because it's not just that we're witnessing protests that are different from the ones we've seen over the last few months - is that this moment in Lebanon's history is different. If you've grown up in Lebanon and lived here most of your life the way I did, except for a short period of time in the U.S., you've gone through civil war, invasions, Syrian occupation, Israeli bombardment campaign.

But this is different. This is the sense of - there is a real sense that this is an existential crisis now, that something truly broke and that the way of doing things from the past no longer works for the future. We've often tried in Lebanon - people have often tried to go for a compromise, to try to patch things up, to find a way forward with national unity. People are no longer willing to do that. Beyond a humanitarian crisis, which is the immediate concern, this is an existential crisis for the country. And it is a political crisis that is also inscribed in the regional context.

KING: So the protesters out in the streets, do they have a unified set of demands? And if so, what do they want? What are, like, the top two things they're asking for?

GHATTAS: There are the immediate demands for an international investigation. People want justice. They're also, of course, asking for humanitarian aid and assistance of all kinds, whether it's for food, reconstruction, medical aid (unintelligible) clear (ph) to the international community that that aid must be sent and administered in such a way that it does not become a lifeline to the current government and the political establishment, who are known for their corruption and for skimming off the top.

And then there are the overarching demands of wholesale change to the system - the resignation of the government, resignation of Parliament, new electoral law, early elections. All of this is going to take time, and that's why there's a sense that this is a real turning point for the country.

And as I said, it is inscribed in a wider political crisis and a regional context. You must look at what is happening in Lebanon also in the regional context and look at the protests that have been taking place in Iraq and in Iran because what people are also demanding here in Lebanon is an end to, in essence, Iranian interference in Lebanese affairs and their support for a group like Hezbollah, militant Shia group that is very powerful, political but also militarily, and that has a lot of say in some of the country's infrastructure like the port and the airport. And that's why this is not just a humanitarian crisis but something much bigger. And it is about Lebanon's future.

KING: Kim Ghattas wrote the book "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, And Collective Memory In The Middle East."

Kim, thank you so much for being with us.

GHATTAS: Thanks so much, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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