Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab has announced his resignation almost a week after a massive explosion that devastated the capital, Beirut, killing some 200 people and wounding 6,000 others.
Diab made the announcement in a televised address to the nation on Monday, saying he has come to the conclusion that corruption in Lebanon is “bigger than the state”. The move risks opening the way to dragged-out negotiations over a new Cabinet amid urgent calls for reform.
Diab said is taking “a step back” so he can stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.”
“I declare today the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon,” he said, repeating the last phrase three times.
“This crime” was a result of endemic corruption, Diab added, and called for the trying those responsible for the deadly blast.
The August 4 explosion, 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 struggling with a major economic crisis.
The developments follow a weekend of anti-government protests in the wake of last week’s explosion in that caused widespread destruction to much of the capital. The protests turned violent when riot police clashed with protesters, firing tear gas and live bullets in a bid to disperse crowds.
The explosion is believed to have been caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-ton stockpile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate. The material had been stored at the port since 2013 with few safeguards despite numerous warnings of the danger.
The result was a disaster Lebanese blame squarely on their leadership’s corruption and neglect. Losses from the catastrophic blast are estimated to be between $10bn to $15bn, with nearly 300,000 people left homeless.
The last decision taken by Diab’s government before its resignation was to refer the case of the explosion to the Supreme Judicial Council, which handles crimes infringing on Lebanon’s national security as well as political and state security crimes. The Supreme Judicial Council is Lebanon’s top judicial body.
A judge earlier on Monday questioned the heads of the country’s security agencies. Public Prosecutor Ghassan El Khoury questioned Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, the head of State Security, according to state-run National News Agency. It gave no further details, but other generals are scheduled to be questioned.
Political and economic reforms
The resignation typified Lebanon’s political dilemma. 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 roadmap for reforms. But the pressure from within his own Cabinet proved to be too much.
Diab’s government was formed 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.
His government, which was supported by Hezbollah and its allies and seen as one-sided, was basically doomed from the start, tasked with meeting demands for reform but made up of all the factions that reformers want out.
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 change is going 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 organizations pledged nearly $300m 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.