Lebanon government on the brink as 4th minister quits over Beirut port blast
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Death toll from explosion said above 200

Lebanon government on the brink as 4th minister quits over Beirut port blast

Finance and justice ministers step down amid intense criticism of country’s corrupt system, leaders’ refusal of international probe; just 3 more resignations will topple government

Lebanon's Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni speaks during an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) at his office in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
Lebanon's Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni speaks during an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) at his office in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon’s government was teetering Monday, as ministers’ resignations over the deadly Beirut port explosion threatened to snowball, and protesters’ fury on the scarred streets showed no sign of abating.

The under-fire cabinet, struggling to weather the political storm, was due to meet in the afternoon amid widespread demands for an end to an entrenched political system dominated by sectarian interests and family dynasties.

The country’s top officials have promised a swift and thorough investigation — but they have stopped short of agreeing to an independent probe led by foreign experts as demanded by the protesters.

Four ministers have already decided they can no longer stand with a government that has shown little willingness to take the blame or to put state resources at the service of the victims.

Six days after the enormous chemical blast which wreaked destruction across swaths of the capital and was felt as far away as the island of Cyprus, residents and volunteers were still clearing the debris off the streets.

International rescue teams with sniffer dogs and specialized equipment remained at work at the disaster’s charred “ground zero,” where the search was now for bodies and not survivors.

According to the health ministry, at least 158 people were killed in Lebanon’s worst peacetime disaster, 6,000 were wounded, and around 20 remained missing. Others have put the death toll at over 200.

The Lebanese want heads to roll over the tragedy and are asking how a massive stockpile of volatile ammonium nitrate, a compound used primarily as a fertilizer, was left unsecured at the port for years.

Words are written by Lebanese citizens in front of the scene of Tuesday’s explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 9, 2020. Public fury over the massive explosion in Beirut took a new turn Saturday night as protesters stormed government institutions and clashed for hours with security forces, who responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Resignations

Marie-Claude Najm resigned as justice minister on Monday, her office said, and Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni’s office said he was also stepping down, becoming the third and fourth to quit the government since the blast, after the information and environment ministers stepped down earlier.

At least nine lawmakers have also announced that they would quit in protest, as have two senior members of the Beirut municipality. The government falls if one-third of its 20 ministers resign, meaning that just three more resignations would downgrade the government to caretaker status.

The August 4 blast, which drew comparisons with the Hiroshima atom bomb, was so enormous that it altered the shape of not only Beirut’s skyline, but even of its Mediterranean coastline.

An aerial view taken on August 7, 2020, shows a partial view of the port of Beirut and the crater caused by the colossal explosion three days earlier of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse, left scores of people dead or injured and caused devastation in the Lebanese capital. (AFP)

But it remained to be seen whether the disaster will also have a lasting impact on Lebanon’s political landscape, whose masters were widely seen as being primarily bent on self-preservation and buck-passing.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab gave a short televised address Saturday evening to suggest early elections, but protesters were utterly unconvinced and ransacked several ministries even as he spoke.

During a second evening of protests on Sunday, the rage sparked by the explosion that disfigured Beirut and scarred so many of its residents had not relented, and violent street clashes flared again.

“The resignation of ministers is not enough. Those who are responsible for the explosion should be held accountable,” said Michelle, a demonstrator in her early 20s.

She carried a poster of a friend who was killed in the explosion, inscribed with the message “My government killed me.”

Volunteers, clad in masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, distribute meals to people affected by the Beirut port explosion in the Ashrafieh neighborhood of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on August 10, 2020. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

‘Direct’ aid

Demonstrators lamented that security forces were using tear gas against blast victims instead of helping them clean their wrecked homes and find a roof.

“We need an international investigation and trial to tell us who killed our friends and all the other victims, because they might try to conceal the truth,” said Michelle.

French President Emmanuel Macron supported the idea when he visited last Thursday, but his calls for reform and transparency appeared to receive less attention among Lebanese officialdom than his offer to raise aid money.

An online emergency support conference Macron chaired Sunday, attended virtually by a slew of world leaders including US President Donald Trump, came up with pledges for more than 250 million euros ($295 million).

Macron, who was given a hero’s welcome when he trudged through the rubble of ravaged old Beirut to meet distressed residents, stressed the aid would go “directly” to the population.

Many Lebanese are skeptically waiting to see how the aid delivery will navigate a sophisticated and deeply entrenched system of local and sectarian patronage organized by the country’s party barons.

A Lebanese flag set by citizens flies in front the site of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Lebanese aid groups have warned foreign donors that any financial assistance risked being siphoned away.

The Beirut disaster compounded what has become Lebanon’s annus horribilis, deepening a dire economic crisis, which had dragged half of the country into poverty in recent months.

The obliteration of the port and its huge grain silos in a country hugely reliant on imports has sparked fears of food shortages in the coming weeks.

Adding to Lebanon’s woes, coronavirus cases are reaching new highs almost every day, putting further strain on hospitals that are treating blast victims and the dozens wounded in the repression of the protests.

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