BEIRUT – Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri withdrew on Thursday over what he called a “key difference” with the president, deepening a political crisis that left Lebanese without a government for nine months, despite surviving an unprecedented economic collapse.
Without a clear candidate to replace Hariri, Lebanon is likely to go deeper into chaos and uncertainty. The prospects for forming a government that will undertake much-needed reforms and talks on a recovery package with the International Monetary Fund are now even more distant.
Poverty has risen sharply in recent months, and a terrible shortage of medicines, fuel and electricity has marked what the World Bank describes as one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 years.
“I excused myself for not forming a government,” Hariri said after a 20-minute meeting with President Michel Aoun. “May God help the earth.”
Hariri – one of Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni Muslim leaders – later told Al-Jadeed TV that he had no intention of approving the replacement. According to the Lebanese sectarian political system, the prime minister was elected from the ranks of the Sunnis.
Without Hariri’s support, the prospects for forming a government would have become even more distant. Aoun said that he would soon set a date for consultations with the parliamentary blocs on the appointment of a new candidate for prime minister.
Hariri told television that when that happens, his bloc will “consult with our friends and allies and see what needs to be done.”
Following the news of Hariri’s departure, protesters – mostly his supporters – blocked roads and set fire to tires in several parts of Beirut, condemning the deepening crisis. Troops deployed to break up the protest on the outskirts of Beirut, firing into the air and using armored vehicles to open the roads. Protesters pelted soldiers with stones.
The national currency, in free fall since the crisis erupted in late 2019, has fallen to a new low, selling more than 20,000 to the dollar on the black market. The Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for 30 years, has lost more than 90% of its value.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose country ruled Lebanon for about 25 years until its independence after World War II, called the failure to form a new government “another terrible incident” demonstrating “the inability of Lebanese leaders to find a solution to the crisis.” they created. “
“They have not fully recognized the political and economic situation of their country,” he told reporters at UN headquarters in New York after chairing a Security Council meeting on Libya.
“We are a few days away from the first anniversary of the explosion in Beirut,” in a port that killed and wounded thousands, Le Drian said. “It’s kind of a cynical destruction of the country that’s going on, and this is just another step.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Hariri’s resignation “another disappointing development for the Lebanese people.”
“It is crucial that a government that is committed and able to implement priority reforms is formed now,” Blinken said in a statement.
In a last-ditch attempt to stop the stalemate, Hariri proposed a 24-member cabinet to Aoun on Wednesday and said he expected the president’s response by Thursday.
Aoun, who blamed Hariri for the stalemate, said the prime minister-designate had rejected the idea of changing any name on the proposed list, saying he had already planned to step down and “found an excuse to justify his decision”.
International calls have been made to Lebanese leaders to form a new government. In an unusual move, French and US ambassadors to Beirut recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to discuss Lebanon with Saudi officials. The two said Lebanon “desperately needs” a new, pro-reform government to inform it of the economic and financial crisis.
But for months, that effort has been blocked by a power struggle between Hariri on the one hand and Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Basil, who heads the largest bloc in parliament on the other.
They have shut down a form of government that will oversee key reforms and elections scheduled for next year. Each side blamed the stalemate on the other, which paralyzed Lebanon, even as melting accelerated and inflation rose.
Nabil Bou Monsef, a political commentator for the An-Nahar newspaper, said the appointment of a new prime minister would now be even more difficult.
“We may not be able to form a government or find an alternative to Saad Hariri,” he said. “President Michel Aoun will now consider himself the winner by getting rid of Saad Hariri. But in reality, (Aoun) opened the gates of hell to the whole earth and its rule. “
Regional and international mediation has failed to bridge the gap between Lebanese leaders. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said during a visit to Lebanon last month that power struggles and a case of strong mistrust are at the heart of the political crisis.
Hariri, 51, has been prime minister twice, the first time from 2009 to 2011. Its second time came in 2016, in an awkward partnership with Aoun, an ally of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, backed by Iran. At the time, Hariri supported Aoun for president, ending nearly two years for Lebanon without a head of state, while he stepped in as prime minister.
In 2017, in a reflection of the rift between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran, Hariri abruptly resigned in a televised address from Riyadh and accused Hezbollah of taking Lebanon hostage. The Saudis extorted the move from Hariri and he was quickly returned to power, but he signaled the end of his traditional alliance with the Sunni regional power.
Then, in October 2019, Hariri resigned, favoring national protests demanding major reforms. A year later, parliament reappointed him to the post, months after Hassan Diab’s government resigned following a mass explosion in a Beirut port on August 4th. More than 200 people died in the explosion that collapsed the city and injured thousands, which aggravated the troubles of Lebanon. The investigation into what caused it continues.
Negotiations with the IMF have also stalled following Diab’s resignation. The stalemate left no one to deal with the spiral crisis rooted in years of mismanagement and corruption.
Lebanon’s economy shrank by more than 20% in 2020, poverty deepened, and more than 55% of the population lived below the poverty line.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue of Beirut contributed to this report.