Lebanon’s president asked former premier Saad Hariri to form the country’s next government Thursday after he secured enough votes from lawmakers – bringing back an old name to lead the country out of its dire political and economic crises.
Hariri resigned from the post a year ago amid nationwide protests by a public angered by widespread corruption, mismanagement of resources and a flunking economy. In the year since, Lebanon’s currency sank, losing nearly 80% of its value, while prices, unemployment and inflation soared. Lebanese have been unable to access their savings, as banks imposed informal capital controls fearing a run on deposits.
Hariri’s return to office is a setback for protesters who had been demanding change, and see him as a symbol of a political class they blame for the country’s woes.
His successor — a technocrat supported by the Hezbollah group — stepped down after the massive Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port, caused by thousands of potentially explosive chemicals that had been stored in a warehouse there for years. The blast defaced the capital, killing nearly 200 people, and injured over 6,000. The explosion is seen as further proof of an incompetent political class in charge of governing the small country since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990.
Hariri won by a simple majority Thursday, securing a total of 65 votes out of 120 lawmakers polled by President Michel Aoun amid sharp divisions over the shape of the Cabinet Hariri is expected to form.
Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest bloc in parliament and the largest Christian party, withheld support to Hariri. Another major Christian party, formerly an ally of Hariri, has also withheld support.
The powerful Shiite group Hezbollah implicitly supports Hariri’s designation to the post but refrained from voting for him to avoid appearing to be breaking ranks with its ally, Aoun’s party. Hariri got backing from the other Shiite group, Amal, as well as the largest Sunni bloc, a small Christian party and independents.
President Aoun already delayed the consultations a week, amid signs of wrangling over his party’s role in any upcoming government.
In a speech on the eve of the consultations, Aoun signaled that he would not stop Hariri from being named prime minister but indicated he wants a bigger role in government formation. Most observers expect a rocky process.
“Today, I am required to designate (a prime minister) and then participate in the formation of a government,” Aoun said. “Will the one who is nominated commit to addressing corruption and launching reform?”
Portending tensions ahead, protesters who took to the streets Wednesday rejecting Hariri’s nomination were heckled by his supporters amid heavy security deployment. The Hariri supporters moved to the epicenter of the 2019 protests and set fire to a large fist erected there that has come to symbolize the uprising against the old political class.