Lebanon’s PM-designate Sa’ad Hariri quits

Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Sa’ad Hariri has quit after almost 10 months of failed attempts to form a new government, plunging the country deeper into crisis.

Hariri announced his resignation after a crunch meeting with President Michel Aoun. Hariri said the two had been unable to reconcile differences which have dogged talks over the formation of a new government since Hariri took the position in October last year.

Lebanon is suffering its worst-ever peacetime economic crisis. It has been exacerbated by a power vacuum since the current cabinet resigned shortly after the Beirut port explosion in August last year along with the failure to enact badly needed reforms.

The crippled local currency dived lower on the news, with local media reporting all-time black market lows of L£20,000 to the dollar — 92 per cent lower than the official exchange rate, which public employees’ salaries are still tied to.

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Hariri and Aoun have clashed over the composition of the cabinet, whose posts are usually shared out between Lebanese political parties according to informal religious quotas. The executive positions are also carved up between the biggest sects: the premier is a Sunni Muslim, the House Speaker a Shia and the president a Christian.

While Hariri has argued that Aoun was stopping him exercising his constitutional right as premier-designate to select every member of his cabinet, Aoun has claimed he should be allowed to name Christian ministers and blocked Hariri’s picks. Hariri submitted another list to the president on Wednesday with 24 ministers.

“I asked the president if he needed more time to study the formation,” Hariri said in a short statement after their meeting on Thursday, “but from his response it seems that we won’t agree.”

Lebanon desperately needs a fully empowered government to enact much-needed banking and economic reforms. Other countries have said they are not prepared to provide aid to the Mediterranean nation of about 7m people unless corruption and wasteful public spending is curbed.

France has led the international community in its calls for the formation of a new government in Lebanon, formerly under a French mandate. EU foreign ministers this week agreed to pursue sanctions against those responsible for the delay in forming the cabinet.

“The reality is [politicians] want to escape accountability . . . and they’re looking at the elections next year,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based research fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center, referring to general elections due to be held in 2022. “Their focus is how to shift blame to the other side and use the sectarian system in that game rather than take charge and lead the country out of the crisis.” Hage Ali described the stalemate as “a collective cowardly act”.

Lebanon’s economy has buckled in just under two years, with gross domestic product shrinking by an estimated fifth from 2019 to 2020, according to the World Bank.

The population, which includes hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, has been hit by fuel and medical shortages, runaway inflation and high unemployment.

Swaths of Beirut were blown up in a huge chemical accident last August, which killed more than 200 people and was widely blamed on official negligence. Public anger over the blast felled the previous government days after the explosion.

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