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Government falls as tolls from Beirut blast grow

Marco Müller
August 10, 2020

Lebanon's prime minister and Cabinet have resigned. The August 4 explosion in Beirut killed more than 150 people and left at least 300,000 homeless.

Lebanon Proteste in Beirut
Image: Reuters/T. Al-Sudani

"The people want the regime to fall," protesters had chanted following the August 4 explosion that injured more than 6,000 people in Beirut, left upwards of 300,000 homeless and has killed at least 150 so far. And the people appeared to have succeeded on Monday, when officials announced that Lebanon's government had resigned.

The explosion was caused by 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that was in storage in the port in less-than-safe conditions. Though Lebanese President Michel Aoun raised the possibility of an attack in the immediate aftermath, investigators and officials agree that an accident is more likely. Government officials are suspected to have known about the danger.

"It is an accident," Charbel Wehbe, who had been named foreign minister on August 3 — the day before the explosion — said Thursday. "Preliminary reports indicate it is mismanagement of explosive products," he added. "This is a very serious neglect that continued for six years."

'Anguished Lebanese people'

As protests reached their peak Saturday, the government called in the army and police used tear gas against demonstrators. The protesters seized the Foreign Ministry as "a seat of the revolution," in the words of retired General Sami Rammah, who has emerged as a leader of the demonstrations. They also occupied the Energy Ministry, the Economy Ministry and the headquarters of the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

"We call on all the anguished Lebanese people to take to the streets to demand the prosecution of all the corrupt," Rammah said. He added that the "system" had destroyed the country.

The Lebanese Red Cross reported that more than 230 people were injured in the government's efforts to put down the protests. One police officer died.

The demonstrations picked up on a wave of protests that began in late 2019, when people from different economic and religious backgrounds took to the streets to demand a change of government after years of corruption and incompetence. Many people in Lebanon believe that officials are interested only in enriching themselves — regardless of their professed political or religious ideologies. During the most recent protests, demonstrators erected a mock gallows on the capital's Martyrs' Square, and the hashtag #HangThem has trended on social media.

Officials resign

The writing was on the wall by late Saturday, when, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he would suggest early elections to his Cabinet on Monday. Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad resigned on Sunday, saying that the government had failed. "I want to apologize to the Lebanese people, whose aspirations we were unable to fulfill due to the difficulty of the challenges facing us," she said in a statement that was broadcast on television.

Environment Minister Demanios Kattar resigned late Sunday, calling Lebanon's ruling system "flaccid and sterile." Nine members of parliament had also resigned through the weekend.

On August 3, the day before the explosion, Nassif Hitti stepped down as foreign minister, warning that Lebanon was turning into a failed state. He said there was an "absence of an effective will to achieve comprehensive structural reform." His replacement, Wehbe, stepped down on Monday — after a term of exactly one week.

International response

Assessments of the financial damage caused by the explosion, which destroyed several buildings, vary from the conservative official estimate of $3 billion (€2.5 billion) to closer to the closer to $15 billion put forth by independent groups. Lebanon has been in a state of economic stagnation for years. About 2 million people are unemployed in Lebanon, which has a population of roughly 6 million, including an estimated 1.5 million refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria and, with Israel on its southern border, tens of thousands of long-term-displaced people from the Palestinian territories.

On Sunday, representatives of about 30 countries and aid organizations met at a donor conference organized by French President Emmanuel Macron and the United Nations to discuss aid for Lebanon. Before the conference, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced €10 million ($11.8 billion) in emergency aid. "The people in Beirut need our help and they need a reason for hope," he told the Sunday edition of the mass-circulation German newspaper Bild.

The German Red Cross dispatched €1.5 million in relief supplies to Beirut on Saturday — including first aid kids, blankets, tools and kitchen utensils. France set up an air and sea transport for food and other supplies.

The European Union had pledged €33 million in aid after the explosion. On Sunday, it promised €30 million more.