Lebanon’s cabinet faced mounting pressure on Monday to step down after a massive explosion that has ignited anti-government protests and resignations by several ministers, with the justice minister the latest to go.
The Aug. 4 port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate killed 158 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city, compounding months of political and economic meltdown and prompting furious calls for the entire government to resign.
The cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, was due to meet on Monday, with many ministers wanting to resign, ministerial and political sources said.
The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday, as well as several lawmakers. Justice minister Marie-Claude Najm resigned on Monday, citing the catastrophic explosion.
“The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, an engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.”
WATCH l Resignations begin in Lebanon as donors make pledges:
Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections.
Lebanon’s president had previously said that the deadly blast was the result of explosive material that had been stored unsafely for years at the port. Diab later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident.
Beirut’s governor said many foreign workers and truck drivers remained missing and were assumed to be among the casualties, complicating efforts to identify the victims.
Anti-government protests in the last two days have been the biggest since October, when demonstrators took to the streets over an economic crisis rooted in endemic corruption, waste and mismanagement. Protesters accused the political elite of exploiting state resources for their own benefit.
‘It’s a mafia’
Eli Abi Hanna’s house and his car repair shop were destroyed in the blast.
“The economy was already a disaster, and now I have no way of making money again,” he said. “It was easier to make money during the civil war. The politicians and the economic disaster have ruined everything.”
Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated since the 1975-90 conflict.
“It won’t work, it’s just the same people. It’s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast.
Workers picked up fallen masonry near the building where wall graffiti mocked Lebanon’s chronic electricity crisis: “Everyone else in the world has electricity while we have a donkey.”
“It will always be the same. It is just a political game, nothing will change,” said university student Marilyne Kassis.
An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros ($398 million Cdn) for immediate humanitarian relief.
But foreign countries are demanding transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank checks to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt. Some are concerned about the influence of the Shia movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a televised news conference on Monday that countries should refrain from politicizing the Beirut port blast. He called on the U.S. to lift sanctions against Lebanon.
The Lebanese, meanwhile, are struggling to come to terms with the scale of losses. Entire neighbourhoods were destroyed.
“It is very sad. We are burying people every day,” said a priest.