Lebanon’s government has stepped down as Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed endemic corruption for a devastating explosion last week that tore through the capital.
President Michel Aoun accepted Diab’s resignation on Monday and asked the government to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet was formed.
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Tensions have been boiling over in the country following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed some 170 people, with dozens still missing and 6,000 wounded.
“This crime” was a result of corruption that is “bigger than the state”, Diab said in a televised statement, adding that he was taking “a step back” so he could stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them”.
“I declare today the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon,” Diab said, repeating the last phrase three times.
The developments follow a weekend of angry, violent anti-establishment protests in which 728 people were wounded and one police officer killed amid a heavy crackdown by security forces.
Through analysis of videos and images of the security response by the army and men in plain-clothes on the day, and examination of medical documents and interviews with doctors who treated the wounded, Al Jazeera established that security forces violated international standards on the use of force.
Political and economic reforms
The August 4 disaster, which was caused by highly explosive ammonium nitrate that was stored at Beirut’s port for more than six years, has fuelled popular anger and upended politics in a country already struggling with a major economic crisis.
Most Lebanese blame their leadership’s corruption and neglect for the explosion, which has caused damage to the extent of an estimated $15bn and left nearly 300,000 people homeless.
Since October, there have been mass demonstrations demanding the departure of the entire sectarian-based leadership over entrenched corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.
But the ruling oligarchy has held onto power for so long – since the end of the civil war in 1990 – that it is difficult to find a credible political figure not tainted by connections to them.
Although Diab’s resignation had appeared inevitable after the catastrophe, he 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 road map for reforms. But the pressure from within his cabinet proved to be too much.
‘Historic turning point’
Diab’s government was formed after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down under pressure from the protest movement. It took months of bickering among the leadership factions before they settled on Diab.
His government, which was supported by Hezbollah and its allies and seen as one-sided, failed to implement the sweeping political and economic reforms that it had promised.
Now the process must start again, with Diab’s government in a caretaker role as the same factions debate a new one.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Beirut, said the change is going to be challenging because Lebanon’s electoral system is set up “to protect the political elite in the country”.
“To change that system, those political elites have to agree to it,” Smith said.
“Even an explosion as catastrophic as Tuesday’s might not be enough to get those elites easily give up their grip on power … That’s why international pressure, people believe, is necessary.”
On Sunday, world leaders and international organisations pledged nearly $300m in emergency humanitarian aid to Beirut, but warned no funds would be made available until Lebanese authorities committed themselves to the political and economic reforms demanded by the people.
Rami Khouri, a professor at the American University of Beirut, described the developments of the past week as “a historic turning point in the modern political governance of Lebanon” that is “just at the beginning”.
Khouri said there were essentially two main forces currently in Lebanon: “One is Hezbollah and its close allies, and the other one is the protest movement, or the revolution as they call themselves – these are all kinds of people but they do represent the majority of the population.”
“The question is, will there be a serious negotiation now,” he said, noting that the formation of “a hybrid government” tasked to address Lebanon’s critical issues was likely.
“They will have to agree on whether the transitional government that comes in is a serious reformist government, with ‘clean’ and efficient people that can get the support of the international community and do a quick deal with the IMF.”
Meanwhile, Habib Battah, a Lebanon-based journalist, questioned how long the caretaker government would remain in place since it is “very difficult” to form a government in Lebanon.
“The Diab government was many months in the making,” Battah said.
He said while the resignation could be seen as a victory for the protesters who view the government as a “corrupt system”, it is important to note that others benefit from it.
Political parties control schools and hospitals, among other things across the country.
“These parties are really tough to compete against in elections,” Battah said, adding that it was up to the international community to stop supporting these parties if it were serious about helping Lebanon.