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Lebanon’s Government Quits as Outrage Swells Over Port Blast

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By Farah Elbahrawy and Abeer Abu Omar for Bloomberg – Lebanon’s government decided to resign as an outraged public demanded accountability for the biggest peacetime catastrophe in the nation’s history.

“Resignation is a responsibility,” Health Minister Hamad Hassan said on Monday, almost a week after a catastrophic explosion in the Port of Beirut killed more than 150 people, injured thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands more. “We resigned as a responsibility and not an escape from it.” The news was met by protests near the concrete blast walls protecting parliament.

Anger had surged in a nation already grimly familiar with decades of governmental malfeasance as it emerged the blast was caused by 2,750 tons of explosive materials left for six years at the country’s main port in spite of repeated safety warnings.

Lebanon’s own leaders, fearing public anger, have hardly dared to set foot in the devastated areas, and protests erupted late last week demanding regime change and the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his seven-month administration. Multiple ministers had already quit in the aftermath of the disaster.

According to procedure, Diab will go to the presidential palace to submit his government’s resignation officially to President Michel Aoun. The government will then continue in a caretaker capacity until a new one is formed, taking charge of procedural tasks but unauthorized to make important decisions.

It’s not clear how long it will take to form a new government in a nation where political divisions mean talks can drag out for months, and or whether a caretaker government could conclude any deal with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout, or secure international aid.

Even before the explosion, the government was barely functioning, not even able to regularly collect trash or keep electricity flowing, let alone haul the country out of its deepest political and financial crisis since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

A woman holds her breath as she walks near a temporary garbage dump in the neighbourhood of Jdeideh, northeast of the Lebanese capital Beirut on September 1, 2016 (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)
FILE PHOTO: Even long before the explosion, the government was barely functioning, not even able to regularly collect trash or keep electricity flowing (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

Politics remains riven along sectarian lines, increasingly influenced by the Iran-backed Hezbollah that’s classified by the U.S. and Gulf Arab states as a terrorist group. Decades of mismanagement, nepotism and cronyism, meanwhile, had left state coffers pillaged and the country gasping under mountains of debt.

The financial meltdown that has engulfed the country since late last year left many Lebanese hobbling hopelessly along as their leaders failed to undertake the reforms necessary to unlock billions of dollars in donor pledges and a $10 billion IMF bailout.

Lebanon’s appeal for international relief after the explosion yielded pledges of emergency assistance nearing $300 million at a virtual donors conference. But that is a pittance compared to estimated damages ranging as high as $15 billion.

In a strongly worded statement at the end of the conference, IMF director Kristalina Georgieva said months of talks with Lebanon had “yet to yield results” as politicians and bankers remained divided over what needed to be done. She set out four conditions for talks to move forward: restoring the financial solvency of the state, cutting losses at state-owned companies, passing a law to regulate capital outflows and setting up a social safety net.

“Commitment to these reforms will unlock billions of dollars for the benefit of the Lebanese people,” she said. “This is the moment for the country’s policy makers to act decisively. We stand ready to help.”

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P

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