An investigation into Lebanon's national security agency kicks off after initial findings pointed to officials long tolerating a ticking time-bomb in the heart of Beirut, serving as proof to many of the weakening core of the state apparatus.
Amid signs that Lebanon's embattled government may be unravelling, ministerial resignations are piling up in the aftermath of a devastating blast that ripped through the capital Beirut on August 4.
The Cabinet convened on Monday, amid speculation that the government could resign en masse. Or, if four more ministers resign, the Cabinet would collapse, consigning it to caretaker status until a new one is formed.
The blast killed over 200 and wounded around 7,000, raising public anger to new levels.
A Lebanese judge on Monday began questioning the heads of the country’s security agencies over last week’s devastating blast in Beirut as another Cabinet minister resigned in protest.
Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm on Monday handed in her resignation, the third Cabinet minister to resign over the blast.
She felt the brunt of protesters’ anger when she tried to visit a damaged neighbourhood and was met by shouted insults, sprayed by water hoses and forced to leave.
If a total of seven ministers of the 20 Cabinet ministers resign, a new government must be formed. At least nine members of parliament have also resigned.
Lebanon's Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, a key negotiator with the IMF over a rescue plan to help Lebanon exit a financial crisis, has prepared his resignation letter and brought it with him to the cabinet meeting, a source close to him and local media said.
Earlier local broadcasters MTV and Al Jadeed had said that Wazni had resigned. Al Jadeed then said the minister had arrived for a cabinet meeting with this resignation letter in hand.
On Sunday night, Environment Minister Damianos Kattar called it quits after saying the explosion was an "enormous catastrophe".
Kattar said he had lost hope in a "sterile regime that botched several opportunities".
Earlier on Sunday, Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad quit her post in which she cited failure to meet the people's aspirations and last week's blast, was followed by a swirl of reports that other ministers were also resigning.
Several MPs from the 129-seat parliament also quit and local media reported Diab was mulling announcing the entire government's resignation, a day after protesters briefly occupied and ransacked government ministries.
Parliament is also due to convene later this week.
In a televised speech Saturday evening and in an attempt to diffuse public anger, Prime Minister Hassan Diab offered to propose early parliamentary elections said he was prepared to stay in the post for two months to allow time for politicians to work on structural reforms.
State security under prosecutorial questioning
The explosion, centred at Beirut port, is believed to have been caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-ton stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate. The material had been stored at the port since 2013 with few safeguards despite numerous warnings of the danger.
The result was a disaster Lebanese blame squarely on their leadership’s corruption and neglect. The blast destroyed the country’s main port and damaging large parts of the capital. Losses from the blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, and nearly 300,000 people were left homeless in the immediate aftermath.
Public Prosecutor Ghassan El Khoury began questioning Major General Tony Saliba, the head of State Security, according to state-run National News Agency. It gave no further details, but other generals are scheduled to be questioned.
State Security had compiled a report about the dangers of storing the material at the port and sent a copy to the offices of the president and prime minister on July 20.
The investigation is focused on how the ammonium nitrate came to be stored at the port and why nothing was done about it.
About 20 people have been detained over the blast, including the head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor, as well as the head of the port. Dozens of people have been questioned, including two former Cabinet ministers, according to government officials.
Violent protests continue
As the political negotiations took place, protesters converged again on the parliament area Sunday afternoon, setting off another night of violent demonstrations.
Hundreds of protesters clashed with security forces, attempting to breach the heavily-guarded parliament. Security forces responded with tear gas and chased the protesters in the streets of downtown, in a smaller repeat of scenes from the night before.
The revelation that Lebanese state officials had long tolerated a ticking time-bomb in the heart of the capital has served as shocking proof to many Lebanese of the rot at the core of the state apparatus.
The disaster has revived anger at a ruling class seen as living in luxury while millions endure job losses, deepening poverty, power blackouts and garbage mountains piling up in the streets.
Direct aid to people
World leaders and international organisations pledged nearly $300 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Beirut but warned that no money for rebuilding the capital will be made available until Lebanese authorities commit themselves to the political and economic reforms demanded by the people.
Over 30 participants to the international conference offered help for a “credible and independent” investigation into the August 4 Beirut explosion, another key demand of the Lebanese crowds who took to the streets Saturday and Sunday.
In a joint statement, donors pledged the assistance would be "directly delivered to the Lebanese population" under the supervision of the UN, in a clear indication that no money is going to the government and its coffers.
The UN said about $117 million would be needed over the next three months for health services, emergency shelter, food distribution and programmes to prevent the further spread of Covid-19, among other interventions.
The final statement also read: “In these horrendous times, Lebanon is not alone."
The teleconference participants promised emergency aid, focusing on medicine and hospitals, schools, food and housing.
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country once governed Lebanon as a protectorate, said, “We have to do everything we can so that violence and chaos do not win the day."
“The explosion of August 4 was like a thunderbolt. It’s time to wake up and take action. The Lebanese authorities now have to put in place ... political and economic reforms."
Search for a sustainable solution
In the country where civil war raged for 15 years, few, if any, have been held accountable for it and most of the warlords remain in power or leading powerful political factions.
The government, backed by the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies, announced it is defaulting on Lebanon's sovereign debt and has since been engaged in difficult, internally divisive talks with the International Monetary Fund for assistance.
The coronavirus restrictions deepened the impact of the economic and financial crisis and fueled public anger against the new government.
Lebanese have criticised Diab's government for being unable to tackle the challenges, saying it represents the deep-seated political class that has had a hold of the country's politics since the end of the civil war in 1990.