Lebanon talks on new PM begin

This picture taken on October 3, 2012, shows then-Education Minister Hassan Diab attending a conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut. — AFP pic
This picture taken on October 3, 2012, shows then-Education Minister Hassan Diab attending a conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut. — AFP pic

BEIRUT, Dec 19 — Lebanon’s president hosted consultations today to pick a replacement for Saad Hariri, who resigned seven weeks ago under pressure from an unprecedented wave of protests.

Hassan Diab, a professor at the American University of Beirut and a former education minister, was tipped by Lebanese media as Hariri’s likely successor.

He was endorsed today by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which with its political allies holds a majority in parliament, but not by the main Sunni bloc, suggesting a political rift.

A new government is urgently needed to tackle a spiralling economic crisis which has left the country teetering on the brink of default.

President Michel Aoun launched the twice delayed official talks to designate a new prime minister with a meeting with Hariri, who did not endorse any candidate to succeed him.

“God bless everyone,” the prominent Sunni leader said after the meeting.

The 49-year-old had in recent days been seen as the most likely choice to head a technocrat-dominated government but he announced late yesterday he was pulling out.

‘The only option’

Hariri resigned on October 29, nearly two weeks into a nationwide cross-sectarian protest movement demanding the wholesale removal of a political elite seen as corrupt and incompetent.

Lebanon has been ruled by the same political clans and families since the 1975-1990 civil war and protesters have pushed for a technocratic government.

“I have strived to meet their demand for a government of experts, which I saw as the only option to address the serious social and economic crisis our country faces,” Hariri said in a statement.

But his proposal had drawn too much opposition from his political rivals, he said.

Hariri has cast himself as a champion of economic reform held hostage by unwilling coalition partners, but protesters see him as a product of Lebanon’s hereditary politics and a “symbol of corruption.”

Lebanon’s top politicians started trickling into the presidential palace this morning for consultations with Aoun, raising hopes that an announcement was imminent.

Lebanese media named the new frontrunner as 60-year-old Hassan Diab, a vice president at AUB who held the education portfolio between 2011 and 2014.

“Hassan Diab is the new prime minister in charge of forming a government,” the An-Nahar newspaper said on its front page.

The power-sharing system that was enshrined after the end of the civil war means that the prime minister’s position should be filled by a member of the Sunni Muslim community.

As the leading Sunni representative, the premier is usually backed by the community’s main leaders.

But top Sunni politicians, including Hariri and his Future Movement, stopped short of declaring their support for Diab, whose designation was backed by Hezbollah and their political allies after talks with the president.

Officials from the Future Movement have also said they may not participate in the forthcoming government, suggesting a widening political rift.

‘Sunni-Shiite schism’

Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said the expected appointment of Diab will only “deepen” Lebanon’s crisis.

“If Diab is appointed as premier, then the coming government will be dominated by Hezbollah (and its allies) without political cover from Hariri and the Sunnis,” he told AFP.

“This will drive Lebanon towards a Sunni-Shiite schism and drown the revolution in sectarian discourse,” he said.

Diab’s previous and only tenure as a minister was in a government formed after Hariri’s cabinet was brought down by Hezbollah and its political allies.

He describes himself on his website as “one of the rare technocrat ministers since Lebanon’s independence.”

While the huge crowds that filled the squares of Beirut and other Lebanese cities two months ago have dwindled, the protest movement is still alive and keeping politicians in check.

The candidacy of a billionaire who was presented as an alternative to Hariri was quickly shut down by angry crowds last month and attempts by MPs to pass contested laws were thwarted by demonstrators blocking access to parliament.

Tensions have been further heightened by the looming bankruptcy of the debt-ridden Lebanese state, with banks unable to respond to a stinging liquidity crunch.

The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the US dollar, has lost around 30 per cent of its value on the black market. — AFP

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