Lebanese Prime Minister Resigns, Acknowledging 'Endemic Corruption' That Led to Beirut Blast

Diab announces that the government is stepping down amid public outcry, saying he is 'with the people' in demanding accountability for deadly explosion ■ Protests break out again near parliament building

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A Lebanese protester waves a national flag amid clashes with security forces in central Beirut on August 10, 2020.
A Lebanese protester waves a national flag amid clashes with security forces in central Beirut on August 10, 2020.Credit: AFP

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced Monday that the Lebanese government has resigned, hours after the cabinet announced its resignation.

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Lebanese President Michel Aoun accepted the resignation of the prime minister's government on Monday following last week's devastating explosion in Beirut port and asked it to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed, a televised announcement said. 

The system of government requires Aoun to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and he is obliged to designate the candidate with the greatest level of support among parliamentarians.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, August 10, 2020. Credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

In a brief televised speech speech, Diab said that the explosion that rocked Beirut last week was caused by "endemic corruption" that has pervaded Lebanese politics for years.

He said: “I declare today the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon,” repeating the last phrase three times.

According to Diab, he was taking “a step back” so he can stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.” The prime minister blamed corrupt politicians who preceded him for the "earthquake” that has hit Lebanon.

“They (political class) should have been ashamed of themselves because their corruption is what has led to this disaster that had been hidden for seven years,” he added.

"Today we follow the will of the people in their demand to hold accountable those responsible for the disaster that has been in hiding for seven years, and their desire for real change," he said. "In the face of this reality ... I am announcing today the resignation of this government."

While Diab's move attempted to respond to popular anger about the blast, it also plunged Lebanese politics deeper into turmoil and may further hamper already-stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a financial rescue plan.

The talks, launched in May, were put on hold due to inaction on reforms and a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses.

Ahead of Diab's announcement, demonstrations broke out again in central Beirut, with some protesters hurling rocks at security forces guarding an entrance leading to the parliament building, who responded with tear gas.

The massive blast on August 4 which decimated Beirut port and devastated large parts of the city has brought a new wave of public outrage at the government and Lebanon’s long entrenched ruling class. Protests were planned outside the government headquarters to coincide with the Cabinet meeting after large demonstrations over the weekend that saw clashes with security forces firing tear gas at protesters.

The explosion is believed to have been caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-ton stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate. The material had been stored at the port since 2013 with few safeguards despite numerous warnings of the danger.

A demonstrator throws a tear gas canister back at police during anti-government protests that have been ignited by a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 10, 2020. Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

The result was a disaster Lebanese blame squarely on their leadership’s corruption and neglect. The blast killed at least 160 people and wounded about 6,000, in addition to destroying the country’s main port and damaging large parts of the capital. Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, and nearly 300,000 people were left homeless in the immediate aftermath.

A Lebanese judge on Monday began questioning the heads of the country's security agencies. Public Prosecutor Ghassan El Khoury questioned Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, the head of State Security, according to state-run National News Agency. It gave no further details, but other generals are scheduled to be questioned.

State Security had compiled a report about the dangers of storing the material at the port and sent a copy to the offices of the president and prime minister on July 20. The investigation is focused on how the ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port and why nothing was done about it.

About 20 people have been detained over the blast, including the head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor, as well as the head of the port. Dozens of people have been questioned, including two former Cabinet ministers, according to government officials.

A demonstrator takes part in anti-government protests that have been ignited by a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 10, 2020.Credit: HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm on Monday handed in her resignation, the third Cabinet minister to resign over the blast. She felt the brunt of protesters’ anger when she tried to visit a damaged neighborhood and was met by shouted insults, sprayed by water hoses and forced to leave.

If a total seven ministers of the 20 Cabinet ministers resign, a new government must be formed. At least nine members of parliament have also resigned.

On Sunday, world leaders and international organizations pledged nearly $300 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Beirut in the wake of the explosion, 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 people.

Iran meanwhile expressed concern that Western countries and their allies might exploit anger over the explosion to pursue their political interests. Iran supports the Hezbollah militant group, which along with its allies dominates the government and parliament.

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.”

Words written by Lebanese citizens in front of the scene of the massive explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 9, 2020. Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

Israel’s defense minister drew a line Monday between the blast and claims that Hezbollah stores its rockets and weapons deep inside civilian areas.

While he did not accuse Hezbollah and its arms of being linked to the blast, Benny Gantz said villages and towns across Lebanon were packed with Hezbollah arms that if set off – whether by Israeli operations or by accident – would destroy homes. He said Hezbollah was Lebanon’s biggest problem.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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