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Lebanon's government resignation is 'no panacea' as angry protests continue

Key Points
  • Lebanon's government stepped down Monday in the wake of last week's deadly explosion at Beirut's port that killed at least 171 people and injured more that 6,000.
  • But street demonstrations across the capital continue, as residents demand the dismantling of Lebanon's entire political elite.
  • Protesters targeting government buildings are met with police force, and more than 700 have been injured.
People take part in an anti-government protest on August 11, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Last week's explosion, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands more, is seen by many Lebanese as a deadly manifestation of government malpractice.
STR | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lebanon's government stepped down Monday in the wake of last week's deadly explosion at Beirut's port that killed at least 171 people and injured more that 6,000, as Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed the tragedy on years of entrenched corruption and negligence.

But street demonstrations across the capital continue, as residents — many of whom are now homeless and jobless, and have long been suffering under the country's economic crisis — demand the dismantling of Lebanon's entire political elite and the system that has led to such devastation.

"Hassan Diab is a puppet, and people want the puppeteers to be taken down," Rob Helaoui, a young videographer living in Beirut, told CNBC by phone. "So the problem is that even if he resigned, nothing changes. The old Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned and nothing happened. It's all been going downhill since then."

Angry demonstrations continue in the capital, as protesters targeting government buildings are met with police force. More than 700 protesters have reportedly been injured. Thousands of ordinary residents have also come out to the streets with brooms to clean up their devastated neighborhoods, with many then joining anti-government protests later in the day.

"The government hasn't been doing anything. It's just devastating to see," Helaoui said. "The police aren't even helping on the streets, nothing. And when people protest they start shooting at us. Rubber bullets and tear gas." 

A woman hold a banner shows the name of victims of Beirut Explosion during a protest near the port, on August 11, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. Last week's explosion, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands more, is seen by many Lebanese as a deadly manifestation of government malpractice.
STR | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Maha Yahya, a Beirut resident and the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, described the explosion's tragic aftermath as "complemented by a total absence of state institutions. Even the rescue mission has been botched by the government," Yahya said during a web panel hosted by the think tank on Tuesday. Her Beirut office was severely damaged in the blast. 

"The explosion damaged almost half the city. The absence of the state and the presence of the people ... it's an example of the kind of criminal neglect (by) this political class. This sense of not caring for the population is palpable." 

'Far from a comprehensive solution'

Even the outgoing prime minister himself pointed to the deeply entrenched political elite for his own, and Lebanon's, failures, describing corruption in the country as "bigger than the state" itself. "The success of this government means a real change in this long-ruling class whose corruption has asphyxiated the country," Diab said Monday. 

Lebanon's decision-making process is beholden to its system of consensus government, which divides leadership among the country's many religious sects. This system has long resulted in political gridlock and patronage, with each party looking out for its own interests rather than the interests of the country as a whole. 

The resignation could provide "an opening to ease political and security tensions," Eurasia Group analysts wrote in a note this week. But, they wrote, it is "far from a comprehensive solution to the layers of structural problems in Lebanon and is no panacea in light of the humanitarian catastrophe following the Beirut port explosion."

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The U.N. and World Bank are creating multi-donor funds of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, especially needed given Lebanon's worst-ever economic crisis, crippling unemployment and skyrocketing inflation — all of which preceded the port blast.

But there remains the enduring challenge of "how to prevent clientelist groups from infiltrating this movement to benefit from that money coming to Beirut," Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, said during the Carnegie Center's web panel. 

"The revolution has been successful in bringing down governments. But we haven't been successful in raising up alternative leaders that can really take the place of corrupt oligarchies," Salem said. This, he explained, will require moving away from a sectarian model to an overarching national one.

Fear of a 'return to arms'

International leaders have been vocal about the need for state accountability in Lebanon — French President Emmanuel Macron promised during an emotional visit to Beirut last week that any aid funds would not fall into "corrupt hands" and met with Lebanese leaders to demand reforms and a "new political pact." 

"If reforms are not carried out, Lebanon will continue to sink," Macron said. Charities and NGOs in the country have urged the international community not to give aid money to the state, as it has a history of disappearing to line politicians' pockets. French and U.S. leaders are also reportedly considering sanctions on several Lebanese officials. 

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Lebanon's political elite have too much to lose for any change to be made, expert says

But there is a fear that calling out some political forces — particularly Lebanon's most powerful party Hezbollah, the Shiite political and militant group backed by Iran, which also controls Beirut's port and airport — could result in a return to arms and renewed civil war.

"Lebanon doesn't have the capacity to take on Hezbollah nor Hezbollah's arms," Yahya said. "At the same time, the backdoor negotiations taking place now are very much about them. How do you move the country out of the quagmire it's in, political, economic and social … without destabilizing, without a return to arms, without a complete breakdown?"

Hezbollah, whose allegiance is to Tehran rather than the Lebanese constitution, does represent a large part of Lebanon's Shiite community, Salem noted. But, he said, "We cannot have our port controlled by a subgroup that doesn't accept the Lebanese constitution … we have to stand up and say the country is dying."

"We know we cannot remove it," he added. "But it's delicate; nobody wants a confrontation."