World leaders will meet virtually on Sunday to co-ordinate aid for Lebanon, a day after protesters stormed government buildings and state security forces violently cracked down on demonstrators in clashes in Beirut that injured hundreds of people.
The unrest has been fuelled by popular rage directed at Lebanon’s entrenched political elite, who are seen as corrupt and incompetent and widely held collectively responsible for the chemical explosion at Beirut’s port on Tuesday, which killed more than 150 people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage to the capital.
The Lebanese Red Cross said it treated 185 people at the scene of protests and took 65 more to hospital. Soldiers were filmed beating demonstrators, police fired tear gas on the crowd of thousands and many were reported hit by rubber bullets.
France is co-hosting Sunday’s UN-backed donor conference, with world leaders including President Donald Trump scheduled to participate. There have been calls from Lebanese activists to divert financial aid from the government. During a visit to Beirut on Thursday, French president Emmanuel Macron told crowds in a devastated Beirut neighbourhood that reconstruction funds would not go into “corrupt hands”, and called for a new “political pact” for Lebanon.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Saturday night said he would introduce a bill to call early elections, adding that he was prepared to “hold responsibility for [the premiership] for two months”. Mr Diab was appointed in March after the previous government resigned in the face of mass protests against official corruption and growing inequality.
An investigation into Tuesday’s explosion is being conducted by the military police under the direction of Lebanon’s state prosecutor, and is intended to determine why 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored in a warehouse in the port for more than six years.
After the explosion, Lebanese president Michel Aoun admitted that he was made aware of the presence of explosive materials in the port in late June. He has rejected demands for an international inquiry.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Iran-backed militia and powerful political party Hizbollah, denied on Friday that the group kept weapons in the port.
Lebanon had already been seeking a bailout from the IMF even before Tuesday’s disaster, after Beirut defaulted on its $90bn debt pile in March and its economy went into freefall. But talks have stalled as the new government failed to enact reforms that the international community said were a prerequisite for any support to its Treasury, or found consensus over financial losses with its central bank and commercial lenders.
Countries from Iran to Turkey and the Gulf have sent planes to Beirut with medical supplies and other emergency aid. International rescue teams arrived in the days after the blast to try to rescue people from the rubble. But they found no one alive, according to a European firefighter co-ordinator.
The European Commission has already pledged $33m in initial emergency aid, and European Council president Charles Michel met Lebanese leaders in Beirut on Saturday.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless and the government has been strongly criticised by protesters for its lacklustre emergency response. A handful of members of parliament have resigned and the information minister, who acts as government spokesperson, quit on Sunday morning.
Manal Abdel Samad said “changes were still far from reach” and that she was stepping down because of the “catastrophe”, according to the state news agency.
The economy minister, Raoul Nehme, is also set to resign, his adviser confirmed to the Financial Times.