Saturday, October 31, 2020

Lebanon's top politicians resist calls to resign as world leaders consider how to help

Aug 09. 2020
Protesters clashes with security forces in central Beirut during a demonstration against the government.  CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli
Protesters clashes with security forces in central Beirut during a demonstration against the government. CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli
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By The Washington Post · Loveday Morris, Sarah Dadouch, Liz Sly · WORLD, MIDDLE-EAST 

BEIRUT - Lebanon's minister of information stepped aside on Sunday, the first cabinet resignation since the explosion that tore through the capital last week, but falling far short of demands of protesters enraged at the country's political elite. 

It followed a night of angry demonstrations in Beirut with thousands of residents gathering in the city's central Martyrs' Square calling for retribution and resignations and came as French President Emmanuel Macron hosted President Donald Trump and other leaders on Sunday for a videoconference to raise humanitarian funds. 

But in an indictment of Lebanon's government, Macron has indicated that assistance should go directly to the Lebanese people. 

As violence engulfed the city a night earlier, Prime Minister Hassan Diab offered early elections and said he needed two months to reach an agreement with the country's factions. But Tuesday's blast at the port, which killed at least 160 people has fueled calls for a complete shakeup of Lebanon's atrophied political system, dominated by familial dynasties that have changed little in the decades since the country's 15-year civil war. 

Meanwhile, the government appears to be digging in. Diab was meeting with other ministers on Sunday, and discouraging more resignations according to Lebanese media. And for citizens struggling from a catastrophic economic collapse and shattered homes from a blast they blame on corruption and incompetence, political reshuffles of familiar faces are not enough. 

Two parliamentarians also resigned, but there was little sign of political changes that would satisfy the street. 

"We are not going to quit," said Pascale Asmar, 33, who was volunteering cleaning up debris and rubble in the square. "He's going home," she said of the prime minister. "We call him the vase, because he's just for show, he does nothing." 

She pointed to empty promises of the past. Diab's government, formed in January after the last one quit after mass demonstrations in October was supposed to be a rescue team of technocrats, but was formed from familiar factions, including the Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal. 

"He told us, 'Give us 100 days and I promise you I'm going to do something,'" said Asmar. "It's been seven months, we've had a blast, we still have people buried under the rubble and he wants to stay?" 

Amid the frustration, Lebanon's Christian Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai called for the cabinet to resign "if it cannot change the way it governs," Reuters reported. 

The blast left a city where families have been plunged into poverty by last year's economic collapse struggling to repair shattered homes and businesses. 

While international donors are ready to help with the country's reconstruction, it is clear that the funds will not just be handed over to a government notorious for siphoning foreign aid away from the projects it is intended for.

"Everyone wants to help!" Trump tweeted. Germany has said it will contribute an additional 10 million euros in aid. 

"We must act quickly and efficiently so that this aid goes directly to where it is needed," Macron said in opening comments reported by Reuters. "Lebanon's future is at stake."

The government reputation was foremost on people's minds during Saturday's angry protests and people occupied government buildings, set fires and threw rocks toward security forces who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. 

Some accused security forces of using heavy handed tactics, firing tear gas canisters before the demonstration even began and beating demonstrators without provocation. The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 65 people were transported to hospital and 185 were treated at the scene. The army said 105 of its soldiers were injured, among them eight officers. 

Talal Monzer, 35, a taxi driver, ferried three people to hospital, and was still offering free rides to any activists wanting to travel back and forth from the main square on Sunday in his cab with a leaky tire that he said he couldn't afford to repair. It deflates every day, he said. 

"They have to go," he said of the government. "We need new people, people from among the people." 

The whole sectarian power-sharing system that has been in place since the civil war needs to be replaced, he said. 

Adding to grievances are the myriad open questions about the blast, including what triggered the initial fire and explosion before 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate blew up in a huge mushroom cloud, and how it came to be left in the port unsecured for years. 

Macron said his offer of assistance covered an international inquiry, but that offer has been rejected by Lebanese officials. 

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said that demands for an international investigation into the port explosion are aimed at "wasting time." He said that the judiciary would act swiftly "without rushing to confirm who is a criminal and who is innocent."

Many are suspicious of whether there may have been munitions at the port, which is widely believed to be used by Hezbollah, which is both a political party and a heavily armed militia, and have little faith in the government's ability to give answers. 

"You can't tell a criminal to go and investigate their own crimes," said Pauline Asmar, 29, who was helping to sweep up debris.

After days of searching in the destroyed port area, international rescue teams were packing up to go home on Sunday. 

"No single international team found any survivors," said Col. Mariusz Feltynowski, team leader with Poland's state fire service, which sent 42 rescuers and four sniffer dogs. "The government decided yesterday to end the rescue phase."

French and Russian teams found around 10 bodies, he said. 



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