London: Boiling tensions over last week’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut have triggered the collapse of Lebanon’s government and paved the way for potential elections in the crisis-plagued country.
Announcing the resignation of the entire cabinet, Hassan Diab — who took over as Prime Minister in January — blamed decades of “systemic corruption” for Tuesday’s deadly blast and said he supported demands by the Lebanese people “to hold accountable those responsible”.
But an angry Diab also sought to distance himself from the fallout by lashing out at Lebanon’s “elite” for taking the country “to the edge of being broken”.
“This disaster which has hit the Lebanese at the core occurred as a result of chronic corruption in politics, administration and the state,” he said in an address to the nation.
“The magnitude of the tragedy is too large to describe. Nevertheless, some live in another time. Their only aim is to score political points, deliver populist electoral discourse, and demolish the lingering state’s presence.
“We carried the Lebanese people’s demand for change. But a very thick and thorny wall separates us from change; a wall fortified by a class that is resorting to all dirty methods in order to resist and preserve its gains, its positions and its ability to control the state.
“At this particular moment, we have to go back to the people to fight with them against corruption. We need to open the door to national salvage, national rescue. We need to be part of the people.”
He claimed his government’s efforts to reform were blocked by powerful forces, but did not say who they were.
Shock has given way to fury in the Mediterranean nation in the days since the massive explosion killed more than 200, injured at least 6000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Riot police and the military have clashed with demonstrators for the past four nights amid demands for the government to quit and order fresh elections.
The blast occurred at a waterfront warehouse packed with up to 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. The highly dangerous material — which had been seized from a Russian-owned cargo ship in 2014 — sat in the building for up to six years in unsafe conditions.
Documents suggest port officials repeatedly warned the government and judiciary about the threat of the stockpile but the requests were ignored.
The resignations will not necessarily ensure a clean sweep of Lebanon’s political landscape. Diab and some ministers will stay on to lead a caretaker administration until a new one is formed or the Lebanese people go to the polls.
Diab said over the weekend that he supported an early election.
The Prime Minister formed a government in January with the backing of Hezbollah and its allies. The United States, United Kingdom and other countries have listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation.
Four cabinet ministers quit in protest over recent days and others promised to do the same unless Diab did not proactively dissolve the government. The resignations of seven cabinet ministers would effectively trigger the formation of a caretaker government.
Lebanon was already teetering on the brink from its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war when last Tuesday’s explosion rippled through the capital.
A badly mismanaged economy has been in freefall since October, coronavirus cases are surging, and more than 1.5 million refugees — about one quarter of Lebanon’s usual population — have poured in following the war in neighbouring Syria.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed calls for reform in Lebanon and endorsed demands for an independent investigation into last week’s blast.
Two-year-old Australian Isaac Oehlers was one of at least 200 people killed in the explosion.
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Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.