A woman holds a Lebanese flag as Pope Francis delivers his weekly address at Vatican. Sign reads, "From Rome with the Pope" and "Best wishes, Pope." Reuters
Lebanon’s government resigned on Monday amid widespread public fury at the country’s ruling elite over last week’s devastating explosion in Beirut.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab says he is stepping down from his job in the wake of the Beirut port explosion last week that triggered public fury and mass protests.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
In a brief televised speech, Diab said on Monday that he is taking "a step back” so he can stand with the people "and fight the battle for change alongside them.”
He said: "I declare today the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon,” repeating the last phrase three times.
A brief while earlier, Diab's cabinet resigned. The developments follow a weekend of anti-government protests in the wake of the Aug.4 explosion in Beirut’s port that caused widespread destruction, killed at least 160 people and injured about 6,000 others.
The move risks opening the way to dragged-out negotiations over a new cabinet amid urgent calls for reform.
The moment typified Lebanon’s political dilemma. Since October, there have been mass demonstrations demanding the departure of the entire sectarian-based leadership over entrenched corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.
But the ruling oligarchy has held onto power for so long — since the end of the civil war in 1990 — that it is difficult to find a credible political figure not tainted by connections to them.
Volunteers distribute meals to people affected by the Beirut explosion. AFP
Although Diab’s resignation had appeared inevitable after the catastrophe, he seemed unwilling to leave and only two days ago made a televised speech in which he offered to stay on for two months to allow for various factions to agree on a roadmap for reforms. But the pressure from within his own cabinet proved to be too much.
Diab’s government was formed after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down in October in response to the demonstrations. It took months of bickering among the leadership factions before they settled on Diab.
His government, which was supported by Hizbollah and its allies and seen as one-sided, was basically doomed from the start, tasked with meeting demands for reform but made up of all the factions that reformers want out. His government was basically doomed from the start, tasked with meeting demands for reform but made up of all the factions that reformers want out.
Now the process must start again, with Diab’s government in a caretaker role as the same factions debate a new one.
"I hope that the caretaking period will not be long because the country cannot take that. Lets hope a new government will be formed quickly,” Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told reporters. "An effective government is the least we need to get out of this crisis.”
The weekend protests saw clashes with security forces firing tear gas at protesters.
The explosion is believed to have been caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-tonne stockpile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate. The material had been stored at the port since 2013 with few safeguards despite numerous warnings of the danger.
The result was a disaster Lebanese blame squarely on their leadership’s corruption and neglect. Losses from the catastrophic blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, with nearly 300,000 people left homeless.
The last decision taken by Diab’s government before its resignation was to refer the case of the explosion to the Supreme Judicial Council, which handles crimes infringing on Lebanon’s national security as well as political and state security crimes. The Supreme Judicial Council is Lebanon’s top judicial body.Justice Minister Marie Claude Najm and Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti arrive to attend the cabinet meeting. File
A judge on Monday questioned the heads of the country’s security agencies. Public Prosecutor Ghassan El Khoury questioned Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, the head of State Security, according to state-run National News Agency. It gave no further details, but other generals are scheduled to be questioned.
State Security had compiled a report about the dangers of storing the material at the port and sent a copy to the offices of the president and prime minister on July 20. The investigation is focused on how the ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port and why nothing was done about it.
Najjar, the public works minister, said he learned about the material’s presence 24 hours before the blast, receiving a report about the material and holding a meeting with port officials before calling its chief, Hassan Korayetem.
"I wrote a report in the morning the explosion happened in the evening,” Najjar said. Asked why he only learned of it the day before, Najjar said, "I don’t know. Truly I don’t know.”
A demonstrator uses a slingshot during a protest following the blast in Beirut. Reuters
About 20 people have been detained after the blast, including the head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor, as well as the head of the port. Dozens of people have been questioned, including two former cabinet ministers, according to government officials.
On Sunday, world leaders and international organisations pledged nearly $300 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Beirut, but warned that no money for rebuilding the capital would be made available until Lebanese authorities commit themselves to the political and economic reforms demanded by the people.
The US Treasury accused Mudalal Khoury in 2015 of "an attempted procurement of ammonium nitrate in late 2013". It sanctioned his brother Imad a year later for engaging in business activities with Mudalal.
Lebanon is to hold parliamentary consultations on the choice of a new prime minister Monday, three weeks after the government resigned over a deadly Beirut blast,
"I hope whoever hears my words will support, even if it is with the word. We need to feel that we can heal each other’s wounds, support each other. I wish all of you success until we meet at the celebration that will mark Lebanon’s freedom. That day will come. "
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