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Beirut explosion: Trouble brewing for Lebanon's president after Sri Lankan tea gift

Presidency said Ceylon tea was donated to Michel Aoun, after initially stating it was for Beirut blast victims
President Michel Aoun said the tea was gifted to him to show the 'friendship between Sri Lanka and Lebanon' (AFP/File photo)

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has come under fire after 1,675kg of tea donated by Sri Lanka to help victims of the Beirut explosion was instead distributed among presidential guards. 

On 24 August, the presidency tweeted that Aoun had met with Sri Lankan ambassador to Lebanon Shani Karunaratne, who had gifted Ceylon tea for “those affected by the explosion”. 

Translation: President Aoun met the Sri Lankan ambassador to Lebanon, who conveyed her country's condolences to the victims of the Beirut Port explosion, and announced that Sri Lanka had provided 1,675 kilograms of Ceylon tea for the benefit of those affected by the explosion, considering that such assistance expresses the friendship between the Lebanese and Sri Lankan peoples

However, on Tuesday it emerged that the tea was received by the army and distributed among presidential guards and their families. 

The president’s office put out a statement seeking to clarify the matter, stating that the Sri Lankan embassy had in fact donated “a thousand packages of special foodstuffs to be distributed free of charge”. 

Meanwhile, the 1,675 kg of tea was “a gift to His Excellency President General Michel Aoun to express the solidarity and friendship between Sri Lanka and Lebanon".

The tweet from last month that implied that the tea was a gift to victims was an “error”, the presidency said. 

Social media users were less than impressed by the debacle, and saw it as yet another example of corruption by Lebanon’s political elite. 

Translation: The scandal of Michel Aoun's handling of the tea is corruption in itself. [The president's media adviser] Rafiq Shalala says it was a personal gift for Aoun. I would believe that if the Sri Lankan government had heard that Aoun drinks 80 gallons of tea a day, and had gifted him that amount. Is Aoun also handling the financial and food aid that is sent to Lebanon?

The hashtag #حرامي_الشاي (tea thief) trended on Lebanese Twitter, with some users notifying the Sri Lanka embassy and foreign ministry of Aoun’s claim. 

There was even a suggestion by one social media user that the Ceylon tea had been sold onto shops in West Beirut. 

Translation: To whom it concerns!! Ceylon tea, the aid offered by the Sri Lankan state for those affected by the port explosion, is now available in all shops in the area of west Beirut

Around 25,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers reside in Lebanon, of whom at least 22 were injured during last month’s blast. 

In addition to the tea scandal, Lebanese social media users had also raised questions about the fate of 12 tonnes of fish donated by Mauritania in mid-August. 

The army said on Monday that it had received the fish and “stored it according to public safety standards”. 

Lebanon's government has attributed the enormous explosion on 4 August to 2,700 tonnes of the chemical compound ammonium nitrate that had been left lying in a warehouse in Beirut port since 2013. At least 190 people have been killed in total, with over 6,500 injured. 

The World Bank estimated that the blast has caused up to $8.1bn in damage and economic losses to the already cash-strapped country.