BEIRUT (Dispatches) — Lebanon’s government resigned Monday amid widespread pressure following last week’s devastating explosion in Beirut. The move risks opening the way to dragged-out negotiations over a new Cabinet and possible unrest.
Prime Minster Hassan Diab headed to the presidential palace to submit the Cabinet’s group resignation, said Health Minister Hamad Hassan. It follows a weekend of riots 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 moment typified Lebanon’s political dilemma. Since October, there have been mass demonstrations demanding the departure of the entire sectarian-based leadership over charges of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.
Diab 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 and outside 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.
"I hope that the caretaking period will not be long because the country cannot take that. Let’s 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 said to have been caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-ton 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.
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.
The resignation came after pro-Western groups called for a sustained "uprising” to topple Lebanese leaders.
Thousands of people took to the streets to demand an end to corruption, bad governance and mismanagement Sunday, but some elements among the crowd forced their ways into government buildings and ransacked them.
Supporters of the pro-Western March 14 alliance which is led by Saudi-backed former prime minister Sa’ad al-Hariri are reportedly digging in for a long fight.
The unrest in Beirut and an apparent push to topple the government smacks of a "forward escape” tactic embraced by the Western- and Saudi-backed political camp to make the best of the situation and
implement the agenda which it has been following for quite a while with little success, observers say.
The current economic crisis in Lebanon is the result of sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies, which have caused the Lebanese pound to lose more than 80 percent of its value.
President Michel Aoun has said he personally asked Macron to provide Lebanese officials with any aerial images that would determine whether there were aircraft or missiles in Lebanon’s airspace before the catastrophic port blast.
"If the French do not possess such images, we will request them from other nations,” Aoun added.
On Sunday, Western leaders and their allies pledged nearly $300 million in emergency 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 West.
Iran, meanwhile, expressed concern that Western countries and their allies might exploit anger over the explosion to pursue their political interests.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said "it is natural for people to be frustrated.” But he said it would be "unacceptable if some individuals, groups and foreign countries use the incident as a pretext for their purposes and intentions.”
Macron visited Beirut’s shattered streets on Thursday without invitation, two days after the chemical explosion in the dock area.
Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen television said Macron, in a meeting with President Aoun, threatened Lebanese leaders with sanctions if they do not submit to reforms and a "political change”.
Asked about the visit, Mousavi said: "Some countries have been trying to politicize this blast for their own interests.”
"The blast should not be used as an excuse for political aims ... the cause of the blast should be investigated carefully,” he said.
Mousavi also said that "if America is honest about its assistance offer to Lebanon, they should lift sanctions”.