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What's Next For Lebanon After The Beirut Explosion

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There is grief and a growing fury in Lebanon as the country deals with the aftermath of a huge explosion in Beirut that has left 300,000 people homeless and at least 160 people dead. Protests have erupted. Yesterday, demonstrators staged mock hangings of top officials, demanding they resign. A few members of Parliament have. Meanwhile, the political elite point fingers at each other for the failure to secure the huge cache of ammonium nitrate that caused the blast.

Nadim Houry is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative team and the former head of Lebanon's Human Rights Watch office and has watched Lebanon have to rebuild, calamity after calamity. And he joins us now to discuss what's happening. Welcome to the program.

NADIM HOURY: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your grandmother lives near the port. Can you tell me how she and your other family members are doing?

HOURY: They survived, almost miraculously, when you see the damage that happened to their building and how close they were to the explosion. They survived with minor scratches. Most of my friends and neighbors from that area, everyone has a survival story. It was often a question of seconds of luck, of a door that protected them from flying glass and so forth. Most Lebanese have stories of survival over the last two, three decades - escaping bombs, escaping now this explosion - but this time, it's really - the scale of it is shocking. For listeners who don't know Beirut, it happened very close to the major entry point of the city. This was also the area where most of the restaurants, cafes and bars were. So it really - it's an attack at sort of the heart of the city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Lebanese have started to protest - again, government corruption. They had been doing that for most of last year. What makes this kind of endemic corruption different in Lebanon than in other places where it might exist?

HOURY: In Lebanon, the corruption has now become part of the DNA of the political system of the country, the so-called, you know, sectarian consociational system. You cannot appoint a single official, whatever the rank is, without going through the clientelistic sectarian networks of what we call the zuama, the sectarian leaders. Now, why is this corrupt? Because that means you cannot hold a single official responsible without going through these traditional sectarian clientelistic networks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we should say here that, of course, ever since the civil war in Lebanon, what has been put in place is that - a sort of government that is set up to cater to different sectarian interests in the country.

HOURY: Yes. This is how it officially gets described, but in practice, what we've discovered is that it's really a system that caters to six oligarchs who are corrupt. They are of different confessions, and they pretend to speak in the name of their sectarian group by saying, we defend this confessional group. All services for the group have to flow through us. But in practice, what the Lebanese have been discovering over the years is they're not protecting anyone but their own pockets and their cronies' pockets.

And the system, in a way, it's a bit like a cancer. It started, initially, supposedly, for the high-level positions to ensure that all communities are represented. But almost like a cancer that is spreading through the body politic, it has now percolated down to every single layer of administration of our governance. So even when you go to the Port of Beirut, you know, the porters that are getting named depend on a political leader appointing them. And why do they do that? Because this is how they keep them in line, and this is how they get their political loyalty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a system of patronage, essentially. So what needs to happen, then, in your view, to move the country forward?

HOURY: The main demand today is to have a salvation government of people that are outside of the existing political class. This would be a government that has a clear mandate to steer the ship through the economic crisis, that would have the trust of the people. It would be an exceptional situation for two or three years just to stabilize the ship and adopt a fair electoral law and have elections in two or three years, which, hopefully, will see the emergence of new political parties.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must ask you - as someone who watches Lebanon, as someone who is Lebanese, are you concerned that this might be a tipping point?

HOURY: It is a tipping point. If we do not get rid of this political class, all of Lebanon's talents - those who can leave will leave in the coming 12 months. They no longer want to live in that country because they see a state that is killing them slowly, and they're not just killing them with these explosions. They're killing them with the corruption, which makes the environment unlivable. Lebanon now has one of the highest cancer rates. It's killing them with the economy. The country can be rebuilt on fairer, better basis, but it's clear now that this cannot happen while the current political class remains in place. I realize what we're talking about is really a fight as to who is going to stay in Lebanon. It's they or us at this stage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nadim Houry is the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative team and the former head of Lebanon's Human Rights Watch office. Thank you very much.

HOURY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURROGATE SIBLING'S "VERT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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