Lebanon’s Gov’t Resigns Over Blast Fallout
Protesters demand constitutional change, end to decades of corruption by elites
“May God protect Lebanon, may God protect Lebanon.”
With these words, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, under tremendous pressure, announced his resignation on Monday.
Diab blamed the incompetence and corruption of an entrenched ruling class.
“Today we are heeding the people and their demands to hold accountable those responsible for a disaster,” he said in a televised address, blaming a “corrupt political class” that has ruled Lebanon for more than 30 years for the August 4 explosion in Beirut.
“This is why today I announce the resignation of the government,” he continued.
Diab quit after several ministers in his government resigned.
The Lebanese government, under fire for months, faced mounting pressure since last week when a massive explosion tore through the capital’s port, killing at least 220 people, injuring approximately 7,000 more and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless.
The announcement is certain to send the country deeper into chaos, and spark further doubt in a country paralyzed by political dysfunction and nationwide protests.
Nizar Abdel Kader, a retired brigadier general in the Lebanese army and an expert on Lebanese affairs, told The Media Line that his countrymen are “afflicted” with great pain.
“Lebanon before August 4 isn’t the same as Lebanon after,” he says.
The demonstrators have legitimate demands, Abdel Kader says.
“The people are afflicted with great disappointment. Injured, I mean, with great losses. The state is absent. It is not able to do any work, so that in terms of reducing the burden on people, all the political, ministerial and administrative staff are absent from the street because they are afraid of this street. There is no minister who could now go down into the heart of the city and move freely without guards,” he says.
“All this [the resignation of the government and the ensuing political vacuum] without a doubt means that people are entering into the realm of confusion and uncertainty. The future doesn’t look good at all,” Abdel Kader says.
The enormous blast from 2,750 metric tons (3,030 US tons) of ammonium nitrate destroyed a massive area in Beirut, exacerbating months of political and economic meltdown, and threatening to transform the complex political landscape in the tiny Arab country.
Thousands of angry anti-government demonstrators poured onto the streets after the giant explosion, chanting, “Revolution! Revolution!” and demanding an end to corruption and the current political system.
The outgoing government was formed in January, with the backing of the powerful, Iranian-supported Hizbullah group and its allies.
Lebanese political analyst Hussam Robin Arrar told The Media Line that the protesters are not representative of the population.
“This street rising does not represent more than 25% of the Lebanese people. These demonstrations are complementary to the demonstrations before the explosion and before the resignation of Saad Hariri’s government [last October]. However, the demonstrations are all of one [political] color from one point on the political spectrum, opposing the ‘axis of resistance,’” he says.
The “axis of resistance” Arrar is referring to is led by Hizbullah, which is facing pushback for its close ties to Iran and because of its powerful position in Lebanon. This intimate relationship with the Islamic Republic may cost the Lebanese Shi’ite group dear, many say.
Abdel Kader argues that as long as domestic players align themselves with regional powers, there will be no peace at home.
“There are groups that will be harmed by change. There is a group in Lebanon calling for the domination of the axis of resistance whose decisions are linked to Iran. We must be independent and stay away from regional conflicts,” he says.
The demonstrations, at times turning violent, are the biggest and most intense in Beirut since October, when people began taking to the streets over an economic crisis rooted in chronic political and financial corruption in the ruling elite.
Musa Uçan, an international affairs analyst at the Turkish think tank MİSAK (National Strategic Research Council), told The Media Line, “Fractional differences and the methods demonstrators use to express their demands may vary. Priorities may vary. It’s normal for Lebanon.”
The Taif Agreement (aka the National Reconciliation Accord) reached in 1989 was able to end 15 years of devastating civil war in Lebanon. The agreement, based on “mutual coexistence” and segmental autonomy for 18 recognized communities, and their “proper political representation,” became the basis of post-civil war Lebanese electoral law. In reforming the political system, the agreement restored the balance of power between the sects.
But Uçan says profound political reform is now needed.
“The Taif Agreement has institutionalized ethnic, religious and sectarian separation among the nation. It was a fair solution for 1989 but today’s problems require different solutions, and no agreement should be a taboo like the Taif Agreement. Just like individuals, nations live and cultures change over time,” he says.
The demonstrators are united in their demands, he adds.
“The economic crisis triggered by devaluation [of the Lebanese pound] created and shaped the common demands of protesters. Today most of the young protesters are demanding to be one nation and a new constitution defining every Lebanese as Lebanese regardless of their ethnicity, religious preferences. It requires a new political system and means the end of all current political parties and political figures in Lebanon. This is why the protesters are against all the political parties and politicians,” Uçan says.
With the resignation of Diab’s government, the next step is to set a date for parliamentary elections.
But Uçan says that may not be enough to calm the protesters.
“No election or promise may appease them. They need some new faces they believe in. Not Muslim, not Christian, not Arab or Armenian; they want a modern Lebanese [government] that can represent everybody wishing to live in a harmony and in better conditions.”
Uçan says the protesters are demanding technocrats not politicians.
“Current parties and politicians won’t be able to satisfy these demands and therefore we can expect no progress unless well-educated and capable people who can represent the protesters and meet their expectations come forward,” he says.
But Arrar says the upcoming elections will fail to change the political landscape.
“Lebanon is a sectarian country, in the full sense of the word. For the Shi’ite duo [the Amal and Hizbullah movements] there will be no major change, no radical change, no coup.”
He criticized the lack of respect protesters have shown toward Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizbullah.
“What is meant by these slogans is Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, and the weapon of the resistance and those who support the protesters in the parliamentary majority who were elected by the people. Lebanon is ruled by families and religious sects, not the people,” Arrar says.
The demonstrators targeted their ire at the political leaders of the main political parties, screaming a popular slogan, “Kelon ya’ani kelon,” which translates as “All means all of them,” in reference to ousting the entire ruling elite.
Abdel Kader says the protesters’ demands are pragmatic and timely.
“This slogan has become needed now more than before, as ‘all’ means all of this failed political group, they [the politicians] must go. In fact, the fundamental requirement is to find a mechanism to open the door to a major political change in the country. Political change must begin with an electoral process,” he says. “A new parliament will come; it will oversee, first of all, the establishment of [a new] power, and second, monitoring this power, because, in light of the situation, if things continue as is, there is no hope for financial, economic or pollical reform that can bring calm to the streets.”
The protests show no signs of abating. Thousands carried cardboard cutouts of Nasrallah, President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who heads the Amal Movement. Some chanted, “Terrorists, terrorists! Hizbullah are terrorists!”
Furious over a lack of basic services, such as electricity and garbage collection, Lebanese are fed up with their politicians exploiting state resources for their own benefit.
Naji Abu Alali, a father of three from Beirut who owns a clothing store, told The Media Line that his income has fallen by more than 70% since late last year.
“I can’t feed my family; I depend on my father in Canada to help financially,” he says, adding that the drop in the value of the Lebanese pound has driven people further into economic despair.
“I want to leave; I don’t have a reason to stay here anymore. I want to build a future for my family elsewhere. Not here,” Abu Alali says
An emergency international donor conference on Sunday pledged nearly 253 million euros ($298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief, with a promise to channel the aid directly to the Lebanese people.