The week following a devastating explosion in the Lebanese capital of Beirut has been one marred by violence, disarray, and capitulation. With pressures to resign mounting in wake of the disaster, the country’s government, led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, stepped down from power on Monday afternoon. Diab announced the resignation in an impassioned speech to the Lebanese people, revealing that his government had struggled against “an apparatus of corruption bigger than the state” ingrained in the nation’s ruling political elites. “We have fought valiantly and with dignity,” he said, referring to members of his cabinet. “Between us and change is a big, powerful barrier.”
Diab went on to say that the government had “decided to stand with the people” following the blast rather than fight to remain in power. This attitude seemed to be shared by other members of Lebanon’s government, with three other ministers, and multiple members of the country’s parliament, declaring their resignation even before the Prime Minister’s announcement. He said the administration will use its remaining time in power to try and restore stability before new elections can be held.
Public unrest and discontent had been building in the days before the news of resignation. Violent protests erupted outside of the Prime Minister’s house this week, as stones, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails hurled by protestors were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from security forces. Demonstrators were also seen attempting to scale the blast walls outside Parliament Square, and many smaller protests had broken out across the country. The explosion of one of Beirut’s main ports on Tuesday was, in Diab’s words, “an earthquake that rocked the country.” But the conditions leading up to the disaster were emblematic of many of the broader political problems, with negligence and mismanagement characterizing much of the cabinet’s work.
Investigations into the cause of the explosion—which took the lives of at least 200 citizens, injured thousands more, and dealt a devastating blow to the nation’s trade-oriented economy—found that 2,750 tons of highly explosive chemicals were being stored in the depot that caught fire. Diab confirmed that officials within the government had been made aware of potentially hazardous facts as long ago as 2014, yet no rectifying action was ever taken. Diab shared the news in his public statements following the blast. Similar acts of incompetence have led to the deterioration of many of the country’s state-run goods and services. The supply of electricity throughout Lebanon remains unreliable, for instance, with many provinces suffering without it for as many as twenty hours a day. Wildfires have been left unattended, ravaging the country’s cedar forest. In 2016, government bickering stopped trash collection for weeks, leading to rivers of garbage forming in nation’s cities.
Corruption in Lebanon has also led to severe economic stress. Since October, the nation’s currency has depreciated nearly 70% and poverty has soared to close to half the population. Meanwhile, economic decision makers appear powerless to stop the growing crisis as wealthy elites foil any possibility of responsible capital control reforms. And now, general mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided state-wide lockdowns and few welfare packages, leaving much of the population floundering and grinding the economy to a near standstill. Yet, this political turmoil is not new to the Lebanese. The country has seen three Prime Ministers in six months, as rioting and foreign influence—primarily by the United States and Iran—have created rapid turnover in the face of deepening economic and welfare crises. While Diab’s non-partisan and theoretically principled administration brought new hope to Lebanon, even it proved unable to overcome the extensive governance problems.
Now Lebanon is a rudderless ship. As protests go on and conditions worsen, the country appears desperate for new leadership to steer them through the wreckage. This begs the question, however: who would be willing to take on such a daunting task? French President Emmanuel Macron, alongside 15 other world leaders including President Donald Trump, hosted an international donors conference on Sunday to pledge over $300 million in aid to Lebanon as they deal with the aftermath of the latest crisis. Leadership in the United Nations has also urged private donors to “give speedily and generously.” With this aid, as well as guidance from international mediators, the promise of rehabilitation for Lebanon seems all the more possible as the country navigates its way forward.
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