BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his government’s resignation Monday under a barrage of pressure over the catastrophic Beirut port explosion six days earlier that has reignited angry street protests. “I announce the resignation of the government,” Diab said at the end of a televised speech in which he tried to portray himself also as a victim of a corrupt political elite. The announcement was met with cars honking in the streets and celebratory fire in the northern city of Tripoli but it was unlikely to meet long-term expectations of Lebanese.
Even as Diab spoke, security forces in central Beirut clashed for a third night with protesters demanding an end to an entrenched political system widely seen as inept, corrupt and dominated by sectarian interests and family dynasties. France, whose President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut after the blast, called for the “rapid formation” of a new government.
“The aspirations expressed by the Lebanese in terms of reforms and governance must be heard,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, adding that a new government would have to “prove itself” to the people. According to the health ministry, at least 160 people were killed in Lebanon’s worst peacetime disaster, 6,000 injured and about 20 remained missing after the Aug 4 disaster blamed on official negligence.
Almost a week after the enormous chemical blast that wreaked destruction across swathes of the capital and was felt as far away as Cyprus, residents and volunteers were still clearing the debris off the streets Monday. International rescue teams with sniffer dogs and specialised equipment remained at work at the disaster’s charred “ground zero”, where the search has turned to one for bodies rather than survivors.
The Lebanese have been left asking how a massive stockpile of volatile ammonium nitrate, a compound used primarily as a fertilizer, was left unsecured at the port for years. Top officials have promised a swift and thorough investigation – but they have stopped short of agreeing to an independent probe led by foreign experts as demanded by the protesters.
The outgoing government is now due to stay on in a caretaker capacity, and fresh elections could still be months away. Before Diab’s announcement, four ministers had already decided they could no longer serve a government that has shown little willingness to take the blame or to put state resources at the service of the victims. At least nine lawmakers have also announced they would quit in protest, as have two senior members of the Beirut municipality.
The blast, which drew comparisons with an atomic bomb, was so enormous that it altered the shape of not only Beirut’s culture, whose masters are widely seen as bent on self-preservation and buck-passing. But it remained to be seen whether the disaster will also have a lasting impact on Lebanon’s entrenched post-war political culture.
Diab on Monday blamed the blast on corruption by former warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war who have exchanged their military fatigues for suits, or were replaced by relatives. “Their corruption created this tragedy,” said Diab. “Between us and change stands a thick wall protected by their dirty tactics.” During consecutive evenings of protests, the rage sparked by the explosion that disfigured Beirut and scarred so many of its residents had not relented.
“The resignation of ministers is not enough. Those who are responsible for the explosion should be held accountable,” Michelle, a demonstrator in her early twenties, said on Sunday night. Demonstrators said security forces had been using tear gas against blast victims instead of helping them clean their wrecked homes and find a roof. “We need an international investigation and trial to tell us who killed our friends and all the other victims,” said Michelle.
Macron supported the idea when he visited last Thursday, but his calls for reform and transparency appeared to receive less attention among Lebanese officialdom than his offer to raise aid money. An online emergency support conference Macron chaired Sunday, attended virtually by a slew of world leaders including US President Donald Trump, came up with pledges for more than 250 million euros.
Macron, who was given a hero’s welcome when he trudged through the rubble of ravaged old Beirut to meet distressed residents, stressed the aid would go “directly” to the population. Many Lebanese are skeptically waiting to see how the aid delivery will navigate a sophisticated and deeply entrenched system of local and sectarian patronage organized by political party barons.
The Beirut disaster compounded what has become Lebanon’s annus horribilis, deepening a dire economic crisis which had dragged half of the country into poverty in past months. The obliteration of the port and its huge grain silos in a country hugely reliant on imports has sparked fears of food shortages in coming weeks. Adding to Lebanon’s woes, coronavirus cases are reaching new highs almost every day, putting further strain on hospitals that are treating blast victims and the dozens wounded in the repression of the protests. – AFP