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Lebanese parliament approves state of emergency in 1st session since Beirut blast

Lebanon’s parliament speaker called on Thursday for quickly forming a new government in the first legislative session since the catastrophic explosion that killed 172 people last week and pushed the cabinet to resign.

Security forces were heavily deployed in the capital of Beirut, stopping protesters from reaching a conference centre where MPs convened. Many Lebanese are furious at a long-entrenched political class they blame for the blast, accusing them of endemic corruption, mismanagement and negligence.

The Aug. 4 blast at a warehouse containing highly explosive material in Beirut’s port injured some 6,000 people, left about 300,000 without habitable housing and wrecked swathes of the city, which was already in a deep financial crisis. The authorities say the explosion was caused by more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored for years without safety measures.

Some 30 to 40 people are still missing more than a week after the blast and not officially counted as casualties.

Later in the day, U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale toured a demolished Beirut neighbourhood and said Lebanon needed “economic and fiscal reforms, an end to dysfunctional governance and to empty promises.”

U.S. diplomat David Hale on Thursday visits a gathering point where organizations are helping to dispense food, near the scene of the last week’s explosion. (Hussein Malla/Reuters)

Hale said the FBI will join a probe of last week’s deadly explosion “to make sure something like this never happens again.”

Lebanon needs “economic and fiscal reforms, an end to dysfunctional governance and to empty promises,” he said.

Broad powers under state of emergency

Roads to the UNESCO Palace on the southern outskirts of the capital, where parliament has met during the COVID-19 pandemic, were blocked with metal gates before Thursday’s legislative session.

As two cars with tinted windows passed through one of the barricades toward the palace, a small group of protesters hit the vehicles with Lebanese flags.

“They are all criminals; they are the ones who caused this catastrophe, this explosion,” said Lina Boubess, 60, a demonstrator who was trying to reach the palace.

“Isn’t it enough that they stole our money, our lives, our dreams and the dreams of our children? What more do we have to lose? They are criminals; all of them means all of them.”

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Outrage has fuelled protests in which hundreds of people have been injured in confrontations with security forces who have been firing tear gas.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of the government earlier this week, but it was asked by President Michel Aoun to stay on until a new cabinet is formed.

Parliament on Thursday approved a state of emergency declared by the now caretaker government.

The measure gives the military sweeping powers, including the power to declare curfews, prevent public gatherings and censor media, as well as refer civilians to military tribunals for alleged security breaches.

The move has been criticized by rights groups and other critics who say the civilian government was already operating with increased powers because of the coronavirus outbreak. Some pointed to the heavy military crackdown on protesters last week, fearing extended power could lead to increased use of force to silence dissent.

People look out over the destroyed Beirut port silos on Wednesday. With at least 30 people missing, the true toll for the blast is likely over 200 dead. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

State media said Speaker Nabih Berri, a longtime pillar of the sectarian elite, called at the session for “speeding up the formation of a [new] government.”

But Berri also “wants to give a political message — that parliament exists — despite all this talk about early elections and the resignations of MPs,” said a senior political source.

American, French officials visiting

Humanitarian aid has poured in, but foreign countries have made clear they will not provide funds to help Lebanon avert economic collapse without action on long-demanded reforms to tackle state corruption and waste.

Authorities have estimated losses at $15 billion US, a bill Lebanon cannot pay — it already defaulted on its enormous sovereign debt in March. Foreign reserves are critically low, and talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled.

Politicians are in early consultations on forming a new cabinet, a complicated process in a country riven by divisions and governed by a sectarian power-sharing system.

The government came to office in January with backing from parties including the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah. Together with its political allies, they have a majority of seats in parliament.

The United States classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

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