Lebanon’s parliament met on Thursday to debate a state of emergency law that would grant the military sweeping powers to quell unrest following a deadly explosion in Beirut that has reignited angry anti-government protests.
Exceptional powers under the law could be used to end renewed protests demanding the overthrow of a political elite widely blamed for the catastrophic explosion, a human rights group said.
The August 4 blast killed at least 171 people, according to the health ministry, and destroyed an estimated 6,000 buildings in Beirut, further enraging Lebanese already struggling amid a collapsing economy and worsening coronavirus pandemic.
Lebanese security forces deployed heavily in Beirut on Thursday, blocking roads to prevent protesters from reaching a conference centre on the outskirts of the capital where members of parliament met for the first time since last Tuesday’s blast.
The government declared a state of emergency the day after the explosion but the measure must be endorsed by parliament to last longer than a week, according to Lebanese law monitor The Legal Agenda.
The state of emergency would allow authorities to crack down on a nationwide street protest movement that re-emerged in the wake of the blast, it said.
Nationwide anti-governments calling for the overthrow of the country’s political elite and sectarian power-sharing system began last October but street protesters had halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The law would allow security forces to ban gatherings and allow military courts to prosecute civilians over threats to national security. The military could also raid homes and impose house arrests on anyone suspected of harming security, the monitor said.
Angry protesters have marched nightly in Beirut since Saturday, with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds near the parliament building in downtown.
Many Lebanese blame government incompetence and negligence for the explosion of 2,750 of ammonium nitrate that was stored in a port warehouse for six years, despite repeated warnings to the highest level of government of the danger it posed to Beirut.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned on Monday but agreed to stay on in a caretaker capacity during negotiations among political powers to form a new government.
Thursday's parliament session comes as French Defence Minister Florence Parly is due to arrive in Lebanon for a two-day visit.
Senior US official David Hale is also expected in Beirut on Thursday. He will press the country’s political leaders to accept financial and governance reforms to end corruption and increase accountability, the US Embassy said.