Lebanese government quits amid fury over Beirut blast

Photo: Reuters President Michel Aoun (L) accepts PM's resignation on Monday

Lebanon’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, saying a huge explosion that devastated Beirut and triggered public outrage was the result of endemic corruption.

The 4 August detonation at a port warehouse of what authorities said was more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed at least 163 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean capital, compounding months of political and economic meltdown.

“Today we follow the will of the people in their demand to hold accountable those responsible for the disaster that has been in hiding for seven years,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a speech announcing the resignation.

He blamed the disaster on endemic corruption and said those responsible should be ashamed because their actions had led to a catastrophe “beyond description”.

“I said before that corruption is rooted in every lever of the state, but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, pointing to a political elite for preventing change and saying his government faced a brick wall on reforms.

Diab’s cabinet was already under severe pressure to step down. Some ministers had already resigned over the weekend and Monday while others, including the finance minister, were set to follow suit, ministerial and political sources said.

President Michel Aoun accepted the resignation and asked Diab’s government - formed in January with the backing of Iran’s powerful Hezbollah group and its allies - to stay as a caretaker until a new cabinet is formed, a televised announcement said.

While Diab’s move attempted to respond to popular anger about the blast, it also plunged Lebanese politics deeper into turmoil and may further hamper already-stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a financial rescue plan.

The talks, launched in May, were put on hold due to inaction on reforms and a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

The government resignation also puts in question the 253m euros immediate humanitarian relief, pledged by an international donor conference on Sunday since it would be given to the country only if there is transparency over how the aid is used and if political and economic reforms are made. 

Ahead of Diab’s announcement, demonstrations broke out for the third day in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

For many ordinary Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional governance, and they have taken to the streets demanding root-and-branch change.

“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, a Beirut engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”

But others doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.

“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast, quoted by Reuters.

Lebanese, meanwhile, are now also struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses after the blast wrecked entire areas.

“The economy was already a disaster and now I have no way of making money again,” said Eli Abi Hanna, whose house and car repair shop were destroyed. “It was easier to make money during the civil war. The politicians and the economic disaster have ruined everything.”

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