Chronic corruption and dirty tricks: Beirutis demand lasting change

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Many in Lebanon hope a new government of national unity will pave the way for reform after last week’s explosion.

Lebanese protesters gesture next to a fire they lit amid clashes with security forces in the vicinity of the parliament building in the centre of Beirut. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Bethan McKernan in Beirut –  The  Guardian

In the wake of Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab’s announcement that his government will resign, the country has been left wondering whether the explosion that decimated Beirut is also strong enough to uproot Lebanon’s rotten political system.

In a televised address on Monday night after more than a third of ministers quit their posts, forcing him to do the same, Diab said that the corruption of the country’s entrenched ruling class “created this tragedy” but avoided taking personal responsibility.s

“This disaster is the result of chronic corruption … A political class is using all their dirty tricks to prevent real change. We are heeding people’s demand for real change. Today we will take a step back in order to stand with the people,” he said.

His words did little to quell the anger of protesters: hours later, a third night of clashes between demonstrators and security forces broke out near the parliament building, in which police used teargas and protesters threw stones and fireworks.

One week after the explosion triggered by tonnes of unsafe and illegally stored ammonium nitrate that killed more than 200 people, left 6,000 more injured and up to 300,000 homeless, attention is turning from immediate recovery efforts to what the future may hold politically.

Lebanon was already suffering from an economic crisis, years in the making, after the value of the Lebanese pound began to unravel last year, sparking nationwide protests. Coronavirus measures have exacerbated the existing problems, sinking almost half of the nation below the poverty line. Damage from the blast is now estimated at $15bn.

On Tuesday, several Beirutis expressed contempt for the country’s rulers, most of them warlords who swapped their weapons for suits when the civil war ended 30 years ago and a confessional system of government resumed (under which religious communities are represented proportionally in political positions).

“The government resigns, so what. The new government will be made up of the same people because of the sectarian system,” said Aram, who did not want to give his last name. He lost his cousin Jak Barmakian when the port explosion ripped through the 30-year-old’s apartment in fashionable Mar Mikhael, killing both him and girlfriend Nicole el Helo. Aram had been expecting Jak for dinner, but he never arrived.

“Jak told me last month that he felt like he had finally got his life together, he’d just found a job despite the economy and he had a new girlfriend,” he said. “This place is hopeless.”

There are many unknowns going forward: current ministers are set to assume a caretaker role before a new cabinet is formed. A push for more than one third of Lebanon’s MPs to resign, which would trigger fresh elections, is still under way.

A scenario many are hoping could trigger substantive reform is the formation of a so-called national unity government that includes representatives of all the country’s main political parties, some under the guise of technocratic nominees.

“For real change the country needs a totally independent government with legislative powers. Under the current parliament setup, that’s not possible, but Lebanon’s electoral law could be thoroughly reviewed by a national unity government,” said Mohaned Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

“The current candidates for [a national unity government] still have a legitimacy problem, but the explosion, I hope, has shaken more than just the capital: it has sent shockwaves through the political spectrum too, particularly for Hezbollah and Christian parties.

“The new government would need to implement International Monetary Fund reforms to unlock international aid. That would make a big impact.”

 

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