Lebanese government quits following Beirut port explosion

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PM Hassan Diab forced to exit, saying the corruption is ‘bigger than the state’

Martin Chulov in Beirut – The Guardian

Lebanon’s besieged government has fallen, one week after a cataclysmic explosion destroyed Beirut port, with the country’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, claiming the disaster was the result of endemic corruption.

Diab announced the resignation of the government after more than a third of ministers quit their posts, forcing Diab himself to resign.

Diab, who has been prime minister for nine months, was due to notify the president, Michel Aoun, who was expected to accept his resignation.

“I said that corruption is rooted in every part of the state,” the prime minister said. “But I found out that corruption is greater than the state.

“A political class is using all their dirty tricks to prevent real change. The more we tried to get to them, the bigger the walls became.

“This disaster is the result of chronic corruption,” said Diab, repeating: “The corruption network is bigger than the state.”

He added that he was “heeding people’s demand for real change. Today we will take a step back in order to stand with the people.”

However, the move is unlikely to immediately lead to a clean sweep of the government, with current ministers – including those who have resigned – set to assume a caretaker role and form the backbone of a new administration.

Instead a push is under way for more than a third of sitting MPs to quit parliament, which would force new parliamentary elections and could lead to an injection of new members less tainted by corruption and nepotism.

Lebanon’s leadership has been teetering for the past week since an enormous explosion wiped out Beirut’s port and damaged nearby areas. The death toll from the blasts has risen to 200, according to Beirut’s governor. Up to another 6,000 people were wounded.

Decades of incompetence and graft underpinned a decision to keep a stockpile of close to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the port and store it with combustible substances.

The explosion has cast a spotlight on weak governance in the Mediterranean state, which was already reeling from an economic implosion that threatened the livelihoods of millions of people.

At least five more bodies have been recovered from near the 45-metre crater in the docks where the fireball erupted. Local investigators were due to finish a preliminary inquiry into the cause of the disaster on Tuesday.

The fall of the government failed to quell anger on the streets of central Beirut, where demonstrators again clashed with soldiers and parliamentary guards defending the Lebanese legislature. A caretaker administration made up of many of the same ministers would do little to satisfy those calling for an overhaul of the country’s political system, including the basis on which governments are formed.

A central demand of protesters has been to clean out all entrenched layers of governance that had siphoned off much of the country’s wealth and provided next to nothing in public services. Another is for an international team to take over the investigation, and name political leaders who had allowed such a dangerous stockpile to remain metres from Beirut’s most populous areas for more than six years.

After the end of the civil war in 1990, patronage networks founded by warlords became central instruments of statecraft, with all ministries turned into fiefs. Senior politicians had partnered with oligarchs, taking enormous cuts from development contracts and the supply of essential services, such as fuel importation, and waste management.

The result was a small number of hugely wealthy officials and businessmen running the country with outside patronage. The nepotism had infected all layers of government, making dealing with corruption a fact of life for many Lebanese.

“It can’t go on this way,” said Jad Daher, as he walked to a rally in downtown Beirut. “It’s not just the corruption, but the system that got us to this point. If this government resigns, but a new one settles in answerable to the same people, then what have we achieved? This is all or nothing.”

“They won’t do the same thing again,” said Rita Afif. “They know that they can’t, but they’ll still try to. They’ll be stopped this time.”

Security forces again fired teargas at protesters who neared the parliament square, where large numbers of soldiers and police remained behind tall iron gates and barricades inside.

Some political leaders, meanwhile, called for mass resignations of MPs, in order to force new parliamentary elections. At least 43 members would need to quit their seats for that to happen. A senior member, the former warlord Samir Geagea, said in a tweet: “In addition to the ongoing relief efforts in Beirut, we are currently working on rescuing the republic through ridding it of this parliament.”

At least six MPs have quit their seats, and others were expected to follow. The scramble to replace Diab is expected to be led by former prime minister Saad Hariri, who stood down last November in the wake of street protests following an economic collapse that had electrified the country and paved the way for legislators promising change. A second candidate is the highly regarded former senior diplomat Nawaf Salam.

Ever since taking office, Diab had struggled to govern a country crippled by a fast deepening economic implosion, amplified by the coronavirus. The government he led had failed to come to terms with the IMF over a financial bailout conditional on reforms some Lebanese leaders were refusing to make. The IMF has described talks as fraught.

 

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