Lebanon’s embattled Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his government Monday, bowing to public outrage over last week’s catastrophic explosion in the capital.
Addressing the nation in a televised speech, Diab said he was resigning alongside his entire Cabinet, several of whom had already publicly announced they were standing down in protest over the blast.
The resignations followed consecutive days of rage on the streets of Beirut, where security forces clashed over the weekend with protesters demanding the ouster of Lebanon’s political class over the country’s worst peacetime disaster. The explosion of a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, which occurred despite repeated warnings among officials of the dangers it posed, has been widely blamed on an entrenched government culture of incompetence and corruption.
“We will back down and stand with the people. We need to open the door for the people,” said Diab.
“I declare today the resignation of this government. God bless Lebanon.”
Diab, a self-styled reformer who led a cabinet of technocrats, only came to power in December, months after a protest movement unseated the previous administration. He blamed his predecessors for the devastating Aug. 4 explosion, which killed more than 200 people and devastated the Lebanese capital.
“They [the 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 said.
But even the whole Cabinet’s resignation is unlikely to be enough to quell public fury, analysts say.
“The problem extends much deeper than the current government — it really rests with the entire political class,” Aya Majzoub, a Beirut-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “People are calling for a regime change. They don’t want to see any of the faces that we’ve seen before in government; they want a completely new system.”
Sam Heller, a Beirut-based analyst for International Crisis Group, told VICE News that Lebanon was “heading into the unknown.”
“People are understandably so angry at the country’s leaders,” he said, blaming the government's negligence for a disaster of "world-historical scale that’s devastated the city at a time when I think so few are able to bounce back from that.”
This weekend, riot police in body armour clashed with demonstrators advancing on Parliament Square, using disproportionate levels of violence, according to Human Rights Watch. Protesters set up gallows and nooses to hang effigies of Lebanese politicians, while others held signs that read "resign or hang”.
Human Rights Watch’s researchers observed security forces using excessive amounts of tear gas Saturday, as well as firing a tear gas canister directly at a protester’s head – severely injuring him – and shooting rubber bullets and birdshot pellets indiscriminately at protesters.
Majzoub from Human Rights Watch was herself beaten at the protest, hit by an officer before others threw away her phone, which she had been using to document the event.
Mazjoub told VICE News that the heavy-handed response by security forces had only added to the public’s anger over the disaster, which was caused when a massive stockpile of highly explosive ammonium nitrate – a compound used in fertiliser and bomb-making – was left unsecured at the port for years, despite repeated warnings among officials of the risks it posed.
“They’re livid that, after this horrific blast happened, security forces chose to repress people who were expressing their very justified rage and anger over the incompetence and corruption that led to the explosion,” she said.
“What’s even more egregious is that the army and security forces have been noticeably absent from the clean-up and relief efforts. They weren’t helping to pick up the rubble, clean up homes and provide shelter, yet they spend all their resources to crack down on people who were demonstrating. It shows very clearly the priorities of the state.”
Lebanon’s top Maronite Christian cleric, Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, had called in his Sunday sermon for the entire government to resign, as it could not “change the way it governs”.
“The resignation of an MP or a minister is not enough ... the whole government should resign, as it is unable to help the country recover,” he said.
International donors pledged $297 million in aid for emergency relief on Sunday at a summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, stipulating the funds had to be "directly delivered to the Lebanese population” to avoid being siphoned off by corrupt elites.