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Protesters In Lebanon Demand Change After Beirut Explosion

NOEL KING, HOST:

Lebanon was dealing with an economic catastrophe, and then came a humanitarian one. That explosion that tore through Beirut last week killed more than 200 people. It injured thousands. And hundreds of thousands of people are literally picking up the pieces of their lives.

MONA FAWAZ: When we say people are displaced and we give a number of 300,000, we're thinking about people who lost glass in their homes, windows. And these are minor repairs. Some people left. Others didn't. I didn't leave my home. We just put some nylon up. And we're struggling to find glass and someone to help us and to find the money to fix it. But we didn't leave.

KING: That is Mona Fawaz. She's a professor of urban studies and city planning at the American University of Beirut. She blames the government. She says it's corrupt and negligent. And on that, many Lebanese agree. At the beginning of this week, the entire cabinet resigned. But Fawaz says that is not enough. And so she's been part of protests in Beirut.

FAWAZ: On Saturday afternoon, we walked over to the protests a little bit earlier because we have a friend who lives nearby. We wanted to check on them because they're ill. And there was already tons of tear gas. You couldn't enter. It was already people hitting each other. The police force was throwing so much tear gas, we had a hard time getting there. And this is before the time the protest is scheduled. Eventually, live ammunition was used against people. It became impossible. And inside of me, I know there was a desire to prevent what we call another October 19.

KING: What does October 19 refer to?

FAWAZ: October 19, 2019, was sort of the start of yet one more uprising in Lebanon that took really new dimensions because for the first time in a very long time, people came together asking for the fall of the government and a serious change in the way in which we're governed. People like me who have been engaged in protesting think that the order that was put at the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, basically, should come to an end, and that the systems that were put in place since then are systems that work profoundly against people's interests and our ability to live in a country peacefully or have an economy. It corresponds to the moment where the financial breakdown began to happen in the country. And more and more people began to protest.

KING: All right. So that was last fall. A new government comes in. And then a few days ago, under pressure from these most recent protests after the explosion, that government says they will resign. The prime minister resigned, and his cabinet resigned. At this point, why haven't the protests stopped? Isn't that what you wanted?

FAWAZ: You know, see; the government that was put in place after the last resignation is a puppet government. They share a responsibility. Some of them were aware that there was ammonium nitrate. They did not take the proper measures they should to protect people not only from this explosion, also from the financial breakdown that we're living, because the country has been living free fall, a financial free fall, an economic free fall, for the last few months. Our salaries are one-ninth of what they used to be...

KING: Oh.

FAWAZ: ...A few months ago. We're having a hard time survive. And in the middle of all of that, we see this again. So we think the government that was put in place was unable to take any measure to protect the population because this government has no independence for the political class.

And the actual demand of the protesters is a government to be put in place to really represent the interests of people, to set up elections that would create real representation and not the usual theaters we have that lead to the reelection of the same individuals. We need political change. We need the change in the governance of the country. This is the only way a country like Lebanon can reemerge.

KING: You're calling for democratic elections. When would you like those elections to happen?

FAWAZ: I think that for elections to happen democratically, there needs to be a new law to be set in place or that the government that is put in place right now have some legislative power to do it. When the prime minister who just resigned promised early elections, the protesters said leave us alone. We need a more serious change where we feel that someone in charge has some distance from the existing political mafia.

We are facing this threat of what we saw at the end of the civil war, with those areas that were destroyed now, just like the areas that were destroyed after the civil war, being taken over by people with financial interests and political power and seeing people displaced and leave more of the city. Our universities, our institutions, our wonderful youth that has so much skill and is budding with so many initiatives will not be able to recover. They will not be able to come back to those neighborhoods or elsewhere.

KING: You know, I was in Beirut in 2012. I was covering the Arab Spring, and I went for a few days. And I remember being surprised that there were parts of the city where the scars of the war were still so visible even after decades, right? Why did you become an urban planner?

FAWAZ: (Laughter) I became an urban planner because I was - I turned 18 in 1990. And it was the end of the civil war. And it was a time where we dreamt that we were really going to contribute to make a change. I recall how, at that point, we started protesting against the reconstruction of the historic core of the city. We felt that it was losing its identity, that it was being taken away from people. And I wanted to be able to do something else.

I remember how we wrote these statements to be admitted first as an architect and then as a city planner. Studying these majors, it was really with the sense that I will rebuild. And honestly, I've been part of so many initiatives. There was this. There was the war in 1996, then the war from Israel in 2006. And every time, you tell yourself it's the last time it will happen. We will recover the city. This time, we won't let it happen the way it happened before. And then it doesn't happen. And there's a moment where you really want to see a difference.

KING: What, at this point, is giving you hope?

FAWAZ: First, my students. They really want to believe that something else happens. And I work with them on a lot of initiatives. And some of the local initiatives are very successful. And so they want to see these things grow. And I feel I owe it to them.

Second, it's all the people in this city. There's so much positive energy. If you move around Mar Mikhael and the other neighborhoods that were destroyed in the last few weeks, including the low-income, informal settlements, you see so many young peoples carrying brooms and shovels and helping. They're going into homes. They're helping elderly people remove the glass, the debris, put plastic and close their homes. There's so much positive energy. This population deserves so much better than what it has right now.

KING: Professor Mona Fawaz of the American University of Beirut, thank you so much for taking the time.

FAWAZ: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "REMNANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.