'God help the country': Hariri abandons bid to form Lebanese government

Protesters block the road with garbage bins after Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri abandoned his effort to form a new government, in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 15,2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIRUT (REUTERS, AFP) - Lebanese politician Saad al-Hariri abandoned his effort to form a new government on Thursday (July 15), dimming the chances of a Cabinet being agreed any time soon to start rescuing the country from financial meltdown.

Hariri announced his decision after meeting President Michel Aoun, saying it was clear they could not agree, underscoring the political squabbling that has blocked the Cabinet formation even as Lebanon sinks deeper into crisis.

Hariri, a former prime minister and Lebanon's leading Sunni Muslim politician, was designated in October to assemble a government following the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab's cabinet in the wake of the Beirut port explosion.

The United States said Thursday's resignation of Saad Hariri as Lebanon's prime minister-designate was disappointing.

"It is critical that a government committed and able to implement priority reforms be formed now," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. International donors remain adamant that a government must be established before they can provide funding.

" Lebanon's political class has squandered the last nine months," Blinken said in a statement. "The Lebanese economy is in free-fall and the current government is not providing basic services in a reliable fashion."

French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, will host a new international conference on Lebanon next month on the first anniversary of the Beirut port explosion.

Macron will organise the conference on Aug 4 with the help of the United Nations, "to respond to the needs of the Lebanese whose situation is deteriorating every day," it said in a statement.

The French leader had in August 2020 hosted a first aid conference in the wake of the deadly Beirut port explosion that shattered the Lebanese capital, rallying some 250 million euros (S$400 million) in pledges.

Protesters blocked some roads near predominantly Sunni areas of Beirut after Hariri's announcement, setting fire to trash and tyres. Army troops deployed, firing in the air to disperse protesters who pelted the soldiers with missiles, live TV footage showed.

The World Bank has described Lebanon's depression as one of the sharpest in modern history. The currency has lost more than 90 per cent in two years, poverty has spread and Lebanon has been crippled by fuel shortages. Fears of social unrest are growing.

Hariri's decision marks the culmination of months of conflict over Cabinet posts between him and Aoun, the Maronite Christian head of state who is allied to the Iran-backed Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

Hariri and Aoun blamed each other.

'God help the country'

"It is clear we will not be able to agree with his Excellency the President," Hariri said after meeting Aoun for barely 20 minutes. "That is why I excuse myself from government formation and God help the country."

Hariri said Aoun had requested fundamental changes to a cabinet line-up he had presented to him on Wednesday.

In a statement, the presidency said Hariri had refused to discuss any changes and proposed to Aoun that he take an extra day to accept the proposed line-up. "What is the use of one extra day if the door of discussion is closed?" Aoun told him.

The presidency said Aoun would call for consultations with MPs to designate a new prime minister as soon as possible.

But there is no obvious alternative for the post, which must be filled by a Sunni in Lebanon's sectarian system.

Analysts doubt that any Sunni politician of standing would accept the role without Hariri's blessing.

Crisis on 'auto-pilot'

The economic freefall is Lebanon's worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Mohanad Hage Ali, fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the security situation was approaching a breaking point.

"This is a country with a history of violence, and I see this crisis on auto-pilot without anyone in charge," he said.

A demonstrator stands near burning tyres during a protest after Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad al-Hariri abandoned his effort to form a new government, in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Western governments have been piling pressure on Lebanese politicians to form a government that can set about reforming the corrupt state, threatening sanctions and saying financial support will not flow before reforms begin.

But barring a dramatic shift in the political landscape, politicians and analysts say it now seems very difficult for a government to be formed before parliamentary elections next year. Diab remains the caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.

The most influential Sunni politician in Lebanon, Hariri is backed by Lebanon's Sunni religious establishment and, while his support from Sunni led-Saudi Arabia waned in recent years, he is still backed by other Sunni Arab-led states, including Egypt.

Following the announcement, the Lebanese currency weakened further on the parallel market, where dollars changed hands at more than 20,000 pounds, compared to around 19,000 earlier this morning, a dealer said.

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