COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s cabinet resigned en masse on Sunday amid street protests and a dire economic crisis, the outgoing health minister said, leading to a vacuum in the leadership of a country largely controlled by its president’s powerful family.
Every member of the cabinet except for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister and onetime president, stepped down.
The ministers “took a collective decision to resign,” said the outgoing health minister, Keheliya Rambukwella.
The midnight resignations occurred as protesters swarmed streets across Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, and its suburbs, and at a university in the central city of Kandy. Driven by a crushing economic crisis that has resulted in food and energy shortages, protesters defied a state of emergency and risked arrest to take part in demonstrations.
Such protests would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. Mr. Rajapaksa and his family have ruled the country largely through fear, based on accusations of wartime atrocities they perpetrated during Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.
The Sri Lankan president has the power to appoint new cabinet members, and a high-level meeting was underway in the early hours of Monday morning.
Among the 26 departing cabinet members were two of the president’s relatives: his brother Basil Rajapaksa, the much-criticized finance minister; and Namal Rajapaksa, his nephew and the son of the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The younger Rajapaksa was widely viewed as the presumed heir of the family’s dynastic politics, but he has struggled to distance himself from the perceived failings of his father and uncles. It was unclear how his departure would affect his political future.
“The fear factor is definitely not working the way it used to,” said Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka consultant at the International Crisis Group, “though repression remains an option. Sri Lanka is not out of the woods.”
Ranil Wickremesinghe, who served as Sri Lanka’s prime minister after Mahinda Rajapaksa lost re-election in 2015 and until Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in 2019, told reporters Sri Lanka was having its own “Arab Spring.”
In the middle-class suburb of Rajagiriya, demonstrators defied the ban on public assemblies, protesting quietly to try to avoid provoking the security services and holding signs that read, “Enough is enough” and, “Go home, Gota,” referring to the president’s nickname . Some sang Sri Lanka’s national anthem, while others held the hands of their children or waved the country’s flag.
“Regardless of this emergency that they have put, we are having a silent meeting here to showcase that we know our constitutional rights,” said Uttunga Jayawardana, 31, a logistics business owner, who was taking part in the demonstration.
Rifle-armed troops and police officers stationed at checkpoints dissuaded a big march planned through Colombo. Still, more than 100 people followed opposition politicians toward the home of the opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa. They were stopped at barricades near Independence Square, a regular gathering place for protesters at the center of the city.
Mr. Rajapaksa had declared a 36-hour state of emergency on Saturday in hopes of preventing the demonstrations. The government also blocked social media access, a move that set off a rare show of dissent within the Rajapaksa family, which has stamped its name on the Sri Lankan government. Namal Rajapaksa, the outgoing minister of sport, used a virtual private network, or VPN, to remark on Twitter earlier in the day that the ban was “completely useless.”
The government’s ban on protests in Sri Lanka inspired one in London, where about 300 people marched outside the Sri Lankan embassy carrying signs accusing President Rajapaksa of being a thief.
“There is no electricity, no jobs, no food, no fuel. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. We must get back what the government stole from us,” said Shirani Fernando, one of the London demonstrators.
The government’s restrictions on internet access and public movement followed the Thursday protest that involved thousands of people outside Mr. Rajapaksa’s residence in suburban Colombo, an initially peaceful demonstration that turned violent when security forces deployed tear gas and water cannons, according to local news outlets.
Protesters responded by throwing stones and setting fire to buses used by the security forces. Two dozen police officers were injured. More than 50 people were taken into custody, including eight journalists, a government spokesman said on Friday.
Soon after the arrests, some of those in custody claimed that they had been tortured. In a display of support for the protesters, about 300 lawyers volunteered to represent, free of charge, those who had been detained.
Fliers distributed by protest organizers over the weekend urged people to defy the curfew and demonstrate as planned on Sunday. On Saturday, the police allowed some protests to take place, despite the emergency order.
The protesters say they are angry and frustrated over the dwindling standard of living in Sri Lanka as the country experiences a severe economic crisis, marked by cuts in electricity service that have lasted as long as 13 hours a day.
Sri Lanka’s tourism-reliant economy was hit hard after the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019, which killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels. After Mr. Rajapaksa won elections that November, he introduced a sweeping tax cut, and the coronavirus pandemic that soon followed put pressure on the currency, the Sri Lankan rupee.
The central bank decided to peg the rupee to the dollar, rather than continuing to let it float. Analysts say that created a parallel black market and arbitrage opportunities that sent the value of Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt into free fall. At the same time, the country’s foreign reserves dropped to dangerous lows, making it hard to purchase essential imports, including medicine, gas and fuel.
Allies of Mr. Rajapaksa, whose family has dominated Sri Lanka politics for many years, have rebelled. Several political parties in his governing coalition, which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament, have demanded that he appoint a caretaker government consisting of all 11 parties represented in the legislature.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party declared at a meeting on Friday that it would abandon the governing coalition, said Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, a senior member of the party, unless the government moved to “alleviate the economic crisis, after which an election must be called for.”
How Mr. Rajapaksa responds to the public protests in defiance of his emergency order will be watched closely as a measure of how much, or how little, he has changed since his family was last in power.
Mr. Rajapksa was defense secretary and his brother Mahinda was president during the brutal final phase of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. The Rajapaksas were widely credited with bringing the war to a close. But they were also accused by victims supported by United Nations inquiries of war crimes and other abuses.
The family had held power for a decade, until 2015, when they were voted out of office. Their last few years in government were marked by frequent abductions of opponents, who were often bundled away into white vans, never to be seen again.
After the devastating Easter terrorist attacks, security concerns were thrust to the forefront of public consciousness, creating an opening in the elections for Mr. Rajapaksa and his family to return to power.
In Rajagiriya, protesters said that what they most wanted from the Rajapaksas was the humility to recognize their missteps.
“They need to come to the streets and say, ‘We made bad decisions, but we hear you, we feel you. Let us come together and fix this problem.’ They’re not doing that. They’re showing a strong hand and suppressing the people,” Mr. Jayawardana, the protester, said.
Skandha Gunasekara reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Emily Schmall from New Delhi. Aanya Wipulasena contributed from London.