What’s next after the resignation of Lebanon’s government?
BEIRUT--It took six days for the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab to acknowledge defeat and step down following the August 4 seismic blast that shattered Beirut and sent angry crowds back to the streets to demand regime change and the departure of a ruling class accused of corruption and incompetence.
The move followed days of violent anti-government protests over the explosion of some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored insecurely at Beirut port since 2014. At least 160 people were killed, 6,000 injured and part of the city and the port pulverised.
Political analysts agree that despite attempts to float it by its staunchest supporters, including the powerful Hezbollah movement and its allies, the Shia Amal Movement of Speaker Nabih Berri and President Michel Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement, the government could not survive the catastrophe.
“The explosion has blown off the cabinet and thrown it in the sea. It should have resigned from the very first day,” said analyst Amin Kammourieh.
“Diab’s government may not be held solely responsible for what happened but it definitely had a part in it because it was created to carry out the mission of enacting reforms and fighting corruption in which it failed drastically.
“Diab’s biggest mistake was to accept to head a government controlled by the parties which are accused of corruption,” Kammourieh contended.
In his resignation speech, Diab blamed corrupt politicians who preceded him for the “earthquake” that hit Lebanon, saying decades of entrenched corruption is “bigger than the state.”
Hezbollah suffered a painful blow with the departure of the puppet government it dominated. The move risks opening the way to dragged-out negotiations over a new cabinet amid urgent calls for reform.
“The first impression is that the formation of a new government is very complicated and out of reach at least for the moment. But international pressure led by France is mounting and internal turmoil is building up and turning violent. This should normally speed up the Cabinet formation,” said political analyst Johnny Mounayar.
Names of potential candidates for the premiership are being circulated, including Nawaf Salam, a sitting judge at the International Court of Justice, and Mohamed Baasiri, the former deputy governor of the Central Bank. Both have been rejected by Hezbollah as pro-American.
A return to power of former premier Saad Hariri is also unlikely. Hariri, who resigned last year following anti-government protests known as the “October 17 revolt,” has set a number of conditions that are unlikely to be accepted by his political rivals. They include forming an independent government of non-politically affiliated technocrats with exceptional powers to introduce the aspired reforms.
What was possible before August 4 is no longer enough, according to analysts who stressed the urgent need for a government that can deliver on the economy and reforms, including in the energy, social services, public administration and judicial sectors.
“I don’t think the political class has the option of procrastinating in the formation of a new Cabinet. There are big international pressures and the country is no longer viable. Its two strongest economic pillars, the banking sector and trade through Beirut port have been shattered destroyed,” Kammourieh said.
“A government of technocrats could be an option but this time it would have unanimous political cover locally in addition to international support to carry out badly-needed reforms, unlike Diab’s government which was one-sided and isolated internationally,” he added.
World leaders, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, have pledged to provide emergency assistance to Lebanon after the port explosion devastated much of Beirut, causing billions of dollars of damage. But they have insisted there needs to be urgent reforms before they commit further financial aid to help stabilise the economy.
The roots of Lebanon’s political malaise date to the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990 and the decision to share power through sectarian quotas. Critics say this has created an entrenched political class of corrupt warlords or “chiefs” who divide power and influence between themselves along sectarian lines.
The pressure from the street — and from Macron, who visited Beirut last week after the blast — could push the political factions to put aside their differences and form a unity government.
Meanwhile, public fury continues to spill out into the streets as thousands of people, some erecting scaffolds to hang effigies of their leaders, are calling for regime change and an international probe into the blast.
About 20 people have been detained after the blast, including the head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor, as well as the head of the port. Dozens of people have been questioned, including two former cabinet ministers, according to government officials.