Lebanon turns to billionaire tycoon Najib Mikati to form next government

Mr Najib Mikati warned that easing Lebanon's woes would not be easy and called for unity among Lebanese. PHOTO: EPA

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - A billionaire telecommunications tycoon, Mr Najib Mikati, was appointed on Monday (July 26) to form Lebanon's next government, handing him the challenge of trying to pull the small Mediterranean country out of a downward economic spiral.

Mr Mikati, 65, is the third politician delegated by Parliament to form a government since the huge explosion nearly a year ago in the port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people and led to the resignation of the Cabinet in charge at the time.

Since the blast last August, the country has continued to sink, with frequent protests against the political elite, chronic traffic jams, and the currency losing 90 per cent of its value, leading to acute shortages of fuel, medicine and electricity.

Mr Mikati warned in a public statement after his designation as prime minister that easing Lebanon's woes would not be easy and called for unity among Lebanese.

"By myself, I don't have a magic wand, nor can I do miracles," he said.

Comparing Lebanon's meltdown to a raging blaze that was spreading daily and threatening people's homes, he said he had decided "to try to lessen the spread of that fire".

But before unveiling any plans, Mr Mikati must come up with a Cabinet that can receive sufficient backing from a range of political parties in Lebanon's sect-based political system.

His predecessor, former prime minister Saad Hariri, tried for nine months to do so, only to announce this month that he had given up.

Mr Mikati has a decades-long history as a businessman and politician. A company he founded with his brother Taha has invested in real estate, telecommunication and other businesses around the world, giving Mr Najib Mikati a net worth of US$2.7 billion (S$3.7 billion), according to Forbes.

He has served as prime minister twice before, once in a caretaker capacity after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and once from June 2011 to May 2013. He has also held various Cabinet portfolios and is a current member of Lebanon's Parliament.

It was not immediately clear what steps he would take to stem the crisis, but in his address on Monday, he said he had "international guarantees", suggesting that he had consulted foreign countries including the United States that seek stability in Lebanon.

He also said he would work towards implementing a framework presented by France, which called for a new, technocratic government that would carry out reforms and engage with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The previous Cabinet had failed to make progress on the French plan, and talks with the IMF about a potential aid package have stalled for months.

A number of politicians and parties from across the spectrum voiced support for Mr Mikati, including Mr Hariri and Hizbollah, the Iran-backed militant group and political party that the US and other countries consider a terrorist organisation.

In a possible sign of optimism, the Lebanese pound on Wednesday gained value to trade at around 17,000 to the US dollar, from 22,000.

Before the country's economic crisis began in the fall of 2019, the Lebanese pound had been pegged at about 1,500 to the US dollar for decades. Its collapse has gutted the salaries of many Lebanese and sent the prices of goods from abroad skyrocketing in a country where nearly everything is imported.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.