By Laila Bassam
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s top Christian cleric called on Sunday for early parliamentary elections and a government formed to rescue the country rather than the ruling “political class” after the vast explosion in Beirut’s port threw the nation into turmoil.
The now-caretaker cabinet resigned amid protests over the Aug. 4 blast that killed more than 172 people, injured 6,000, left 300,000 homeless and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean city, compounding a deep financial crisis.
Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who holds sway in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church from which the head of state must be drawn under sectarian power-sharing, warned that Lebanon was today facing “its biggest danger”.
“We will not allow for Lebanon to become a compromise card between nations that want to rebuild ties amongst themselves,” Al-Rai said in a Sunday sermon, without naming any countries.
“We must start immediately with change and quickly hold early parliamentary elections without the distraction of discussing a new election law and to form a new government.”
Several MPs submitted their resignations over the port explosion but not in the number needed to dissolve parliament.
Under the constitution, President Michel Aoun is required to designate a candidate for prime minister with the most support from parliamentary blocs. The presidency has yet to say when consultations will take place.
There has been a flurry of Western and regional diplomacy after the blast, which fuelled public anger at politicians already accused of corruption and mismanagement. A financial meltdown has ravaged the currency and froze depositors out of their savings.
Senior French and U.S. officials have linked any foreign financial aid with implementation of long-demanded reforms, including state control over the port and Lebanese borders.
Iran, seen as a major player in Lebanon through backing the powerful Shi’ite movement Hezbollah that helped form the outgoing cabinet, has said the international community should not take advantage of Lebanon’s pain to exert its will.
Al-Rai said Lebanese want a government that would reverse “national, moral and material” corruption, enact reforms and “rescue Lebanon, not the leadership and political class”.
Aoun has said the investigation is looking into whether negligence, an accident or “external interference” caused the detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate warehoused for years without safety measures.
Aoun’s influential son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the largest Christian political bloc, said probing negligence should be quick as it was “known and documented”, but that the blast itself “is a mystery that requires deep investigation”.
Bassil, whose party is allied with Hezbollah, also said in a televised speech on Sunday that threats of further Western sanctions would “drown Lebanon in chaos and discord”.
His party would not “betray or backstab a Lebanese or act with those abroad against domestic interests”, he said.
The United States has imposed sanctions on Hezbollah, which it classifies as a terrorist group. U.S. officials have said those sanctions could be extended beyond direct affiliates of the heavily armed movement to its allies.
During a visit to Beirut after the blast, French President Emmanuel Macron raised the prospect of sanctions as a last resort to spur Lebanese action on reform.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Ghaida Ghantous; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Frances Kerry)