World donors demand change before money to rebuild Beirut

BEIRUT (AP) — World leaders and international organisations pledged nearly USD300 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Beirut in the wake of the devastating explosion, but warned last Sunday 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 Beirut explosion, another key demand of the Lebanese crowds who took to the streets last weekend.

In Beirut, two Lebanese Cabinet Ministers, including a top aid to the premier, resigned amid signals that the embattled government may be unravelling in the aftermath of the devastating blast that ripped through the capital. The blast killed 160 and wounded 6,000, raising public anger to new levels.

The resignation of Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad, 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.

Last Sunday, Environment Minister Demanios Kattar resigned, calling the ruling system “flaccid and sterile”. He stepped down despite closed-door meetings into the evening and a flurry of phone calls between Prime Minister Hassan Diab and several ministers following Abdel-Samad’s announcement. The political haggling had appeared to put off more resignations.

Earth moving equipment and rescue workers search for victims in Beirut, Lebanon, near the site of the explosion that hit the city’s seaport. PHOTO: AP

If seven of the 20 ministers resign, the Cabinet would effectively have to step down and remain in place as a caretaker government.

Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre Director Maha Yahya, said the discussions clearly point to backroom deals that seek to put together a new government that’s acceptable to domestic and international powers, as well as the angered public.

Meanwhile, four more lawmakers announced on Sunday they were resigning from the 128-seat Parliament, joining four others who declared it earlier. Parliament is also due to convene later this week.

As the political negotiations took place, protesters converged again on the Parliament area last Sunday, 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 protesters blame the ruling elite for the chronic mismanagement and corruption that is believed to be behind the explosion in a Beirut Port warehouse. Hundreds of tonnes of highly explosive material were stored in the waterfront hangar, and the blast sent a shock wave that defaced the coastline of Beirut — destroying hundreds of buildings.

The final statement from participants at last Sunday’s donor conference co-organised by France and the United Nations (UN) read, “In these horrendous times, Lebanon is not alone.” The teleconference participants promised emergency aid — focussing on medicine and hospitals, schools, food and housing.

The donors pledged the aid will be coordinated by the UN and delivered directly to the Lebanese people — in a clear indication that no money is going to the government and its coffers.

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.”

Amid the conference participants were United States (US) President Donald Trump, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and other top officials.

Last Sunday, France’s ambassador to Lebanon said his country is taking part in the investigation of the blast. Bruno Foucher tweeted that 46 officers are operating as part of the judicial investigation.

That probe was started by a French prosecutor after a national of France, Jean-Marc Bonfils, was killed in the blast and others injured. It is “a guarantee of impartiality and speed” in the investigation, Foucher tweeted.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Justice Minister has resigned in protest, the third Cabinet member to do so following last week’s devastating explosion in Beirut, the state news agency reported yesterday.