Saad Hariri. Picture: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR
Saad Hariri. Picture: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR

Beirut — Lebanon’s Saad Hariri returned as prime minister on Thursday a year after stepping down in the face of nationwide protests, his promise to implement a French plan to salvage the collapsing economy complicated by his failure to secure broad support.

Hariri received 65 parliamentary votes out of 118, giving him the mandate to form his fourth government after Lebanon’s political establishment failed to agree on a strong alternative to lead the country out of its deepest economic and political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. But his record, and failure to win the backing of the two main Christian parties, will hinder his mission, and his return is unpopular with tens of thousands of Lebanese who filled the streets in 2019 demanding the removal of a political class they blame for the country’s ills.

“Today, we are going back to square one and so we ask: Where is the change?” billionaire businessman Fouad Makhzoumi, one of the legislators who chose not to nominate Hariri, told reporters.

The son of assassinated former premier Rafiq Hariri resigned after weeks of protest in October 2019 as leader of a national unity government that had represented most of the parties in power but was paralysed by divisions, unable to take the painful measures needed to avert a financial collapse years in the making.

Hariri was succeeded by Hassan Diab, an academic supported by Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies. Diab took the key step of defaulting on the country’s $30bn international debt but failed to build the political consensus required to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and restore investor confidence.

Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shiite

The banking and debt crisis, which has triggered triple-digit inflation, wiped out life savings and plunged the middle class into poverty, was deepened by August’s devastating explosion at Beirut’s port. Diab resigned following the blast, which killed more than 200 people and caused as much as $4.6bn in physical damage. Mustafa Adib, a diplomat named to replace him, stepped aside after it quickly became clear he would not win political support for his cabinet line-up, leaving the country in limbo.

A reform initiative proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron in the aftermath of the port disaster calls for a cabinet of independent technocrats to carry out fiscal reforms, seal the IMF deal, pass anti-corruption laws and audit the central bank.

The French president has threatened officials with sanctions if they fail to form a new government. That’s a step already taken by the US. The Trump administration sanctioned two former Lebanese government ministers in September for providing material support to Hezbollah, an armed group, and engaging in corruption, the first such move against high-level individuals in the country.

Legislators who voted to bring back Hariri say he is the only person capable of implementing the French initiative and unlocking billions of dollars in international aid, but stabilising Lebanon is a fraught task.

“To the Lebanese in despair, I say: I am determined to deliver on my promise to end the collapse in our economy, society and security, to rebuild what the blast at the port destroyed and to form a government quickly,” Hariri said after accepting the job. “Time is running out and this is our beloved country’s last chance.”

Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shiite, a complex arrangement where any number of groups can play spoiler.

Speaker Nabih Berri, one of the country’s most influential politicians and a close ally of Hezbollah, has supported Hariri’s return ever since he resigned, as he brings a wider Sunni support-base.

Two major Christian parties refused to back Hariri, including the Free Patriotic Movement, which was founded by the president. Its leader Gebran Bassil has said he did not want to repeat the failures of past governments under Hariri. Hezbollah refrained from naming Hariri out of respect for its alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, but has tacitly endorsed his return and pledged not to undermine his efforts to form a government.

Though all parties have accepted the French proposal and say the economic crisis should be a priority, they have failed to agree on an action plan and economic conditions have continued to worsen.

The IMF projects that Lebanon’s economy will contract by as much as 25% in 2020, causing widespread unemployment and rising poverty.

As the financial crisis has deepened, causing a dramatic depreciation in the Lebanese pound, the central bank has moved to ration its reserves, estimated at $19bn. The central bank has subsidised imports of fuel, wheat and medicine, as well as essential food items, by providing dollars at an official exchange rate now defunct across much of the economy, but has warned that it will not be able to do so forever. The end of subsidies raises the prospect of higher food prices and further social upheaval.

Bloomberg

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