After the Beirut blast, Lebanon’s whole cabinet quit. Now what?

  • >>Megan Specia and Kareem Chehayeb, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-08-12 11:00:23 BdST

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People march in Beirut, on Aug 11, 2020, to honour those killed when a deadly explosion ripped through the heart of the city last week, killing at least 171 people and injuring thousands more. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

Days after an enormous explosion tore through the city of Beirut, leaving at least 171 people dead and thousands injured, Lebanon’s Cabinet resigned on Monday, acknowledging widespread anger over government inaction and mismanagement.

But members of the opposition, activists who have long protested against a fractured political system wallowing in corruption and patronage, and residents angered at the government failures that many believe led to the deadly blast, worry that the move was insufficient to bring real change.

For now, the government has relegated itself to caretaker status, with rescue and recovery efforts still underway, key infrastructure like hospitals and the country’s main port destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

So what happens next? Here are the key points.

A new government does not mean elections.

When Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced that the entire Cabinet would resign Monday evening, he noted that the government would stay on in a caretaker role until a new Cabinet was appointed. But many are bracing for a lengthy period of political paralysis in the meantime.

Diab himself, in his resignation speech, accused the political class of trying to shift blame for the country’s ongoing economic crisis and corruption onto his Cabinet. Instead, he said, deep-seated corruption was “rooted in every part of the state.”

For now, the old Cabinet can continue to meet, but without the power to propose laws or issue decrees.

Under Lebanon’s current system, a new Cabinet can be appointed by President Michel Aoun in consultation with Parliament, without new elections. But the president has remained largely silent, so far only acknowledging the resignations. And horse trading within the sectarian Parliament, the system at the root of many protesters’ complaints, is likely to be painfully slow.

Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the British international policy institute Chatham House, said that pressure from protesters might speed up the formation of a new government but did not necessarily mean that change would come.

“The key question is whether the new Cabinet will merely be a version of the old one,” she said. While it is likely that the incoming government will include Cabinet seats for those outside the ruling class, there’s little chance they will hold enough power to carry out real change.

“The ruling status quo is not willing to fully relinquish power,” she said.

Aid and rescue operations are up in the air.

Even before the explosion, an economic crisis in Lebanon had pushed prices of basic goods sharply upward, leaving many facing the prospect of hunger.

Now, it is unclear who will take charge of the long-term process of recovery and rebuilding in Beirut, and in the country at large. With an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion in damage, according to the governor of Beirut, the process could take years.

Basma Tabaja, the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Lebanon, said in a statement that nearly half of the city had sustained “significant damage” from the blast.

“Almost 300,000 people lost their homes and belongings in the blink of an eye,” she said. “There is overwhelming grief for those lost, and those who survived now need enormous support. Many were left with life-changing injuries, and for others this blow on top of so many other crises is too much to handle alone.”

But despite millions of dollars in international funds pledged to help rebuild, and potential donors standing by, many worry that dysfunction and corruption will hamper aid efforts. So far, armies of volunteers have taken the lead in clearing the streets of debris, sweeping away broken glass and debris. Many have described so far receiving little support from authorities.

The government resignation has done little to stem the protests.

Protests continued to rage on Lebanon’s streets Monday night, with activists saying that the resignations did not meet their demands that the political elite cede power.

Many believed that the resignation of the Cabinet left the country back at an impasse it faced last fall. In October, the protests forced the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He was not replaced by Diab until February.

But not much has changed at the top of Lebanon’s government since then, and neither have the country’s most powerful politicians, many of whom gained prominence during a brutal 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

More protests were planned for Tuesday night. But at the root of the problem is a system built to balance power between rival religious and ethnic groups rather than to produce an effective government, said Maha Yahya, the director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center. Another “national unity” government, which prioritised representation of all political parties, would be likely to fail again, she said.

“The Cabinet never operated as a cohesive and coherent government,” Yahya said. “The international community should understand that this is one of the reasons why we are where we are.”

In order for trust to be restored, the government would have to include people who would inspire the confidence of both the Lebanese people and the international community, she said.

What comes next?

Members of Lebanon’s Parliament, whose chamber was damaged in the blast, are set to next meet again on Thursday, though a new government may still be a long way off.

For now, many of the relief efforts in Beirut will continue to fall to nongovernmental organisations, local volunteers and international aid groups. And while many hoped for a future with a functioning government at the helm, the need for relief is immediate.

But the long-term future of the governing system is now at stake, not just the immediate emergency response. And many believe that the country must look outside its governing elite for real change.

Paula Yacoubian, an independent member of Lebanon’s Parliament who recently resigned, said that even when the government was in full control, it did not take care of its citizens, leaving much of the responsibility to civil-society groups and international donors, whom she called the “real caretakers of the displaced and the wounded after this catastrophe.”

“What we really need is simple: an honest, independent, competent government,” she said. “The aftermath of the disaster showed us who can really serve and lead this nation. We should pick from them.”

 

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