The session opened with a moment of silence for the more than 170 people killed in the blast.
Source: Associated Press
Workers remove debris from destroyed buildings near the site of last week’s explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP Photo)
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Parliament approved on Thursday a state of emergency in the capital, Beirut, in its first session since the tragic explosion last week, granting the military sweeping powers amid rising popular anger and political uncertainty.
The blast that killed more than 170 people and injured at least 6,000 others changed the face of the capital and forced the government to resign.
Before resigning, the government declared a state of emergency in Beirut that granted the military sweeping powers including the power to declare curfews, prevent public gatherings and censor media as well as refer civilians to military tribunals for alleged security breaches.
The move has been criticized by rights groups and other critics who say the civilian government was already operating with increased powers because of the coronavirus outbreak. Some pointed to the heavy military crackdown on protesters last week, fearing extended power could lead to increased use of force to silence dissent.
The state of emergency required parliamentary approval.
Parliament is convening outside its regular location to observe social distancing amid a coronavirus surge and because of protests outside the Parliament building by angry Lebanese who want the entire political class to step down. More protests were expected Thursday.
The session opened with a moment of silence for those killed in the blast. It then moved to discuss the resignation of nearly a dozen lawmakers who quit last week in protest of the government’s handling of the Aug. 4 blast. A major Christian party bloc is boycotting the session.
It still was not known what caused the fire responsible for igniting nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port. But documents have emerged in the wake of the explosion that show the country’s top leadership and security officials were aware of the chemicals being stored in the city port.
The explosion has fueled outrage and protests against top political leaders and led to the resignation of the government Monday. The Cabinet is now in a caretaker capacity.
Parliament is required to approve the state of emergency eight days after it is imposed. But it wasn’t clear if the body had technically extended the government decision for 15 days or simply imposed the state of emergency starting Thursday, said rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh.
“There is incredible chaos,” Saghieh said. He said the state of emergency’s only justification is to extend the power of the state and security agencies and “control the opposition.”
“We were waiting for the army to help in reconstruction not be an extension of power,” he said.
Lawmaker Simon Abi Ramieh protested that Parliament was convened to vote on the state of emergency while it was still in effect and called instead for forming a parliamentary committee to investigate the blast.
“We are living in a state of institutional blunder,” he said. “We are in a place and the Lebanese people are somewhere else. … The public wants to know the truth behind the negligence that led to the explosion.”
Lebanon’s political landscape has been shaken by the blast. Before resigning, the caretaker prime minister proposed early elections, an idea that was not supported by the Parliament speaker and other political groups.
Since the resignation, there has been a flurry of closed-door meetings and political haggling to form a government that meets the approval of domestic and international powers. Lebanon’s complicated sectarian-based political system requires the prime minister to be chosen from among Sunni Muslims. It wasn’t clear if there would be a national unity government — which would mean the participation of all political parties — or an emergency transition government.
France’s defense minister was due to arrive in Beirut on Thursday amid a flurry of foreign visits to the stricken country. France has been leading efforts to help Lebanon emerge from the drastic blow, including talking to political parties to hasten the formation of a new government.
Also on Thursday, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale was due to arrive in Lebanon for a two-day visit. Hale is expected to “reiterate the American government’s commitment to assist the Lebanese people in recovering from the tragedy and rebuilding their lives,” a statement by the U.S. Embassy said. He will also stress the “urgent need” for embracing fundamental reforms.