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World donors demand change before money to rebuild Beirut

BEIRUT — The money to rebuild Lebanon’s shattered capital will come only with the same change demanded by mourning protesters in Beirut, said world leaders and international organizations on Sunday after a global aid teleconference.

Over 30 conference participants offered emergency humanitarian aid and pledged help for a “credible and independent” investigation into last week’s Beirut explosion, another key demand of the Lebanese crowds who took to the streets Saturday and Sunday.

In Beirut, a Lebanese Cabinet minister resigned amid signals that the embattled government may be unraveling in the aftermath of the devastating blast that ripped through the capital on Aug. 4 and raised public anger to new levels.

Manal Abdel-Samad’s resignation, in which she cited failure to meet the people’s aspirations and the Tuesday blast, was followed by a swirl of reports that other ministers were also resigning. If seven of the 20 ministers resign, the Cabinet would effectively have to step down and remain in place as a caretaker government.

Closed-door meetings into the night and a flurry of phone calls between Prime Minister Hassan Diab and several ministers followed her announcement. The political haggling put off more resignations, and a Cabinet meeting is planned Monday. Meanwhile, four more lawmakers announced 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 negotiating 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 the scene 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 tons of highly explosive material were stored in the waterfront hangar, and the blast sent a shock wave that killed at least 160 people, wounded nearly 6,000 and defaced the coastline of Beirut — destroying hundreds of buildings.

“In these horrendous times, Lebanon is not alone”, participants to the conference co-organized by France and the United Nations said in their final statement.

The participants to the donors’ teleconference promised to provide emergency aid — focusing on medicine and hospitals, schools, food and housing.

The donors, who pledged nearly $300 million, warned that no money for rebuilding would be made available until Lebanese authorities “fully commit themselves to timely measures and reforms expected by the Lebanese people.”

They also promised the aid will be coordinated by the U.N. 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 teleconference participants were President Donald Trump, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and other top officials from China, the European Union and the Gulf Arab countries.

The disaster fueled angry demonstrations Saturday where protesters set up gallows and nooses in central Beirut and held mock hanging sessions of cut-out cardboard images of top Lebanese officials.

Demonstrators held signs that read “resign or hang.” One police officer was killed and dozens of people were hurt in confrontations that lasted for hours and where security forces used rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

On Saturday and in a new expression of rage, protesters also fanned out around the city, storming a couple of government ministries and briefly declaring the foreign ministry as the headquarters of their movement. In the economy and energy ministries, the protesters ransacked offices and seized public documents claiming they would reveal how corruption has permeated successive governments.

“Given the magnitude of the catastrophe … that shook the nation and hurt our hearts and minds, and in respect for the martyrs, and the pains of the wounded, missing and displaced, and in response to the public will for change, I resign from the government,” Abdel-Samad said in her resignation letter.

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.

On Sunday, France’s ambassador to Lebanon said his country is taking part in the investigation of the Aug. 4 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.

The government, backed by the powerful militant 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 criticized 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.

In a televised speech Saturday evening and in an attempt to diffuse public anger, 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.