Lebanon’s prime minister resigns amid protests over port explosion, says corruption has ‘paralyzed’ the state

Lebanon’s prime minister stepped down from his post Monday amid protests and public fury over last week’s port explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 160 people and injured thousands.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet also resigned, potentially deepening Lebanon’s turmoil amid growing anti-government sentiment and calls for political reform. 

“I declare today the resignation of this government,” Diab said in a brief televised speech. He said he’s taking “a step back” so he can stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.”

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,” said Diab. “I have discovered that corruption is bigger than the state and that the state is paralyzed by this (ruling) clique and cannot confront it or get rid of it.”

The resignations come after a weekend of anti-government protests over the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port that caused an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion of damage and left nearly 300,000 people homeless. The Lebanese people blame corruption and neglect for the tragic disaster. 

Officials believe the port explosion was caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-ton stockpile of ammonium nitrate. The material had been stored at the port since 2013, with few safeguards despite numerous warnings it posed a danger.

Before Monday’s resignation, Diab’s government referred the matter to the Supreme Judicial Council, which handles crimes related to Lebanon’s national and state security. The investigation is focused on how the ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port and why nothing was done about it.

State security officials 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.

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

Lebanon has been gripped by mass demonstrations for months – long before the port explosion – over allegations of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement. Diab’s government, which was supported by Hezbollah and its allies, may have been doomed from the start as it navigated entrenched political interest with the popular demands for reform.

Diab came to power 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, a former professor at the American University of Beirut.

Now the process must start again, with Diab’s government in a caretaker role as the same competing factions vie for power. The ruling oligarchy has held power for so long – since the end of the civil war in 1990 – that it may be difficult to find an untainted political figure to lead the country.

“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.” 

Najjar said he learned about the ammonium nitrate’s presence at the port 24 hours before the blast. 

“I wrote a report in the morning the explosion happened in the evening,” Najjar said. Asked why he only learned of it the day before, Najjar said, “I don’t know. Truly I don’t know.”

On Sunday, world leaders and international organizations pledged nearly $300 million in emergency humanitarian 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 people.

Contributing: Associated Press

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