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Beirut, Hong Kong, Belarus Elections: Your Monday Briefing

2020-08-10 05:05:19
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Good morning.

We’re covering clashes in Belarus after a presidential election, anger reaching the boiling point in Beirut and Europe’s illegal raves.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who is facing the biggest outpouring of dissent during his 26 years of autocratic rule, was on course Sunday to win a sixth term in office, in an election his critics dismissed as rigged.

Demonstrators and security forces clashed at a protest on Saturday that was fueled by fury over the corruption of elite leaders and that started after the deadly and destructive explosion in Beirut’s port last week.

By nightfall, protesters had stormed three government ministries, a handful of legislators had resigned and the prime minister had called for early elections. It was a sign that the crisis could shake up Lebanon’s political system, widely derided as dysfunctional. Lebanon was already grappling with a sinking economy and soaring inflation and unemployment, as well as a surge in coronavirus cases.

In an effort led by President Emmanuel Macron of France and the United Nations, over 30 international leaders and governments agreed to fast-track support to Lebanon on Sunday.

What we know: Officials suggested the explosion was caused by the detonation of about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in a warehouse at the port. President Michel Aoun said the explosion could have been caused by a bomb or by “foreign interference,” without providing further details or evidence.

Voices: In three ravaged neighborhoods — one middle class, one poor and one upscale — the catastrophe has united everyone in rage against the government. “If there is ever a turning point for Lebanon, this will be it,” said Rabih Mouawad, a restaurateur. “We just got hit by a nuclear bomb! If that doesn’t change things, nothing will.”


Six months after Britain broke away from the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to stop the breakaway of restive parts of the U.K.

On Friday, Mr. Johnson sent his popular Treasury chief, Rishi Sunak, to Scotland, to tamp down nationalist sentiment. There, Mr. Sunak noted that Scottish firms would get 2 billions pounds ($2.6 billion) in loans to survive the lockdown. Another top minister, Michael Gove, visited Northern Ireland with nearly $500 million in aid to help frustrated companies deal with new checks on shipped goods.

Experts have long predicted that Brexit would strengthen the forces pulling apart the U.K. But in Scotland, in particular, the pandemic has accelerated those forces. In an average of recent polls, 52.5 percent of people said they would vote for Scottish independence — a swing from the 2014 referendum, when 55.3 percent of Scots voted to stay in the U.K.

What it means: This is the first time the polls have consistently shown a majority for breaking away, one polling expert said. Pro-independence feelings have hardened in Scotland during the pandemic because many people there believe that Scotland has done a better job managing the crisis than neighboring England has.

Case study: The implications of leaving the bloc are dawning on some of those in Mersham, an area close to Britain’s busiest port where support for Brexit was strong. A 27-acre parking lot is being built to handle trucks amid fears that new trade rules will slow freight movement.

In other news:

Clothing sales fell by 79 percent in the U.S. in April, the largest slump on record. But purchases of sweatpants were up by 80 percent.

What we’re reading: This New Yorker article about Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” in which she argues that racism is a sign of a hidden caste system.

We observed footage of two separate events. The first was a fire with white smoke and small pop-pop-pop explosions, like firecrackers, going off in the blaze. The second was an explosion with an eruption of reddish-black smoke, sending a powerful shock wave through the city. While social media ran wild with speculation, we stuck to what we knew: analyzing explosives and measuring their destructive effects.

To gauge the expected blast and fragmentary effects of exploding munitions, we were trained to determine first which explosive material was present and then calculate its comparative weight in TNT to use as a common reference point. After that, the rest is simple math. But for ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer stored in bulk, there is no simple textbook answer.

There were multiple factors to consider — including how the fertilizer might have degraded after years in relatively open storage near the water and whether there were other compounds present that may have contributed to the blast — so I had to interpret them as best I could.

The worst-case scenario I proposed was that these thousands of tons of fertilizer had about 40 percent of the power of TNT. I built a spreadsheet that calculated how strong the blast would be at various ranges and what the resultant damage might be at each.

My 40 percent figure seems to have held up, given the video evidence I’ve seen so far. In much smaller quantities, burning ammonium nitrate might not explode. But similar incidents around the world have shown that when thousands of tons of it catch fire in a contained environment, the additional heat and pressure can lead to a mass detonation.


That’s it for this briefing. Have a great start to the week.

— Isabella


Thank you
To Melissa Clark for the recipe, and to Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the rest of the break from the news. You can reach the team at
[email protected].

P.S.
• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is a story of isolation after one man fell overboard in the middle of the night.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: French girlfriend (four letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• The Times received 14 Emmy nominations for work published on our site, and our television show, “The Weekly,” was nominated for nine awards.

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