When Del. Sid Saab heard of the explosion in Beirut, he quickly checked on his parents and family living just outside the city. Thankful for their safety, and the safety of his family in Crownsville, Saab is now focused on how best to help the people of Lebanon: He is calling on the country’s president to resign.
President Michael Aoun and his associates must go in order to rid the country of corruption, Saab said. Saab’s comments come after a massive explosion in Beirut killed more than 150 people and leveled much of the city’s port.
Saab said that due to the structure of power in Lebanon, it’s not enough that Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned after the explosion that many believe could have been prevented. There must be a complete overhaul of the nation’s leadership, he said.
“Unless you get rid of the president himself, the corruption he brought with him, and every single minister in the cabinet, it’s completely meaningless,” Saab said. “Until that happens… there is no celebration of change.”
Busy with his professional life as a businessman and legislator, he said he still tries to return to Lebanon every few years to visit his family and acquaint his young children with his home country.
After the explosion, he considered flying back to see his parents and help with relief efforts, but the risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic make him wary. And, he said, “Who knows, after me being a little outspoken I may have just exiled myself.”
The Lebanese people blame the catastrophic explosion on what they say is leadership’s corruption and neglect. The blast is believed to have been caused by a fire that ignited ammonium nitrate that was being stored in the city’s port since 2013. Losses from the explosion are estimated at $10 billion to $15 billion, with nearly 300,000 people left homeless.
Since the Aug. 4 blast, anti-government demonstrators have filled the streets, prompting the resignation of Diab, who has only been in power since January. Before assuming office, Diab was a professor at the American University of Beirut.
“They (the political class) should have been ashamed of themselves because their corruption is what has led to this disaster that had been hidden for seven years,” Diab said. “I have discovered that corruption is bigger than the state and that the state is paralyzed by this (ruling) clique and cannot confront it or get rid of it.”
Diab’s government was dominated by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies and was largely seen as one-sided. It was tasked with meeting demands for reform but was made up of many of the things reformers sought to eradicate.
Saab said that Diab’s resignation is not enough to effect real change in the country. The president and other leaders will be able to “recycle” leaders from the same circles, he said. “It’s like playing musical chairs.”
In his Facebook post, Saab said the president and his associates should have their assets seized and should be tried in an international court for crimes including murder, kidnapping and fraud.
An international court would provide oversight that wouldn’t otherwise be provided by the country’s judicial systems, Saab said. But the trials are necessary for the years of corruption which has plagued the country, he said.
“The whole entire government from top to bottom should be eliminated and start over,” Saab said. “Every single one of them is complicit.”
Instead, Saab proposes the country by governed by the people, with some component of international oversight. Otherwise, he said, “they will fall right back into the same cycle they have been in since I was born.”
The Lebanese Embassy did not return a request for comment.
Lebanon operates under a parliamentary republic, in which the president’s role is largely symbolic since the legislative branch — the parliament — wields more power. It has long been required through a national pact that Lebanon’s president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament be a Shiite Muslim.
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Lebanon’s Public Works Minister Michel Najjar said he hopes the turnover period will move quickly because “An effective government is the least we need to get out of this crisis.”
Because Saab grew up outside Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, he knows how dire circumstances can be. He is trying to teach his three children to appreciate the privileges they are afforded in the United States, noting that his family did not always have running water or electricity when he was a child.
Saab wants to send help to his home country, but he worries that food and supplies might be sold instead of donated, and money might be improperly used through government interception.
“You really need to be there to distribute it to the end-user, to the people, otherwise someone will skim off the top,” Saab said.