Lebanon’s president has said he is seeking to transform the country from a confessional system, where power is divided among sects, to a civil state, following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri amid nationwide protests against dire economic conditions.
The Mediterranean country’s current political system assigns the post of prime minister to a Sunni Muslim, while the president is a Maronite Christian and the speaker of parliament is a Shia Muslim.
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An unprecedented wave of protests erupted two weeks ago, calling for a technocratic government who can lead the country out of deepening economic crisis and improve the utility services.
President Michel Aoun’s comments could pave the way for a compromise over a new government needed to enact urgent reforms seen as vital to steering Lebanon out of a deep economic crisis.
In a televised address marking the third anniversary of his term in office, Aoun said he would do his best to transform Lebanon from a sectarian-oriented state structure to a modern civil one by forming a new government of technocrats.
“Ministers should be chosen according to their competencies and expertise, not political loyalties,” Aoun said.
“Lebanon is at a critical juncture, especially in terms of its economy,” he said.
Pushing Lebanon into ‘chaos’
The powerful Shia movement, Hezbollah, has opposed a change in government, with its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, saying it would push Lebanon into “chaos”.
Hezbollah allies dominate the current parliament.
Mass protests erupted across Lebanon last week against plans to tax calls on WhatsApp and other messaging services.
The demonstrations quickly turned into wider grievances, with calls for the resignation of the government and bringing corrupt officials to accountability.
The government announced a series of reform plans, but with no concrete steps, it failed to placate protesters or reassure multilateral lenders enough to release billions in badly needed aid they had pledged.
Protesters say the sectarian political system on which the government is based on is problematic as it spawns patronage and clientelism. They are demanding a new government to be formed comprised of technocrats unaffiliated with the political class.
Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system guarantees political representation for all 18 sects in the country, a legacy of French colonial rule. Seats in cabinet and the parliament are divided between Christians and Muslims.
Positions in the public-sector are also divided between religious groups.
The country suffers from high unemployment, little growth and one of the highest debt ratios in the world, with the debt burden reaching $86.2bn in the first quarter of 2019, according to the Ministry of Finance.
Following Hariri’s resignation, Aoun urged him to remain in his post until the new government is established.
A senior official familiar with Hariri’s thinking said he was ready to return as prime minister of a new Lebanese government on condition it includes technocrats and can quickly implement measures to stave off economic collapse.
Iran-backed Hezbollah reiterated on Thursday that Hariri’s resignation would waste valuable time for pushing through reform measures, which aim to tighten state finances and prod western donors to release billions in pledged aid.
“Hariri’s resignation will contribute to wasting the time available to enact the reforms,” Hezbollah said in a televised statement.
Hezbollah also accused the US of meddling in domestic affairs to spread chaos.
Nasrallah is expected to speak again in a televised address on Friday afternoon.
France, which backs Hariri, also called for the quick formation of a new government to enact the urgent reforms.
On Friday Lebanese banks opened for the first time in two weeks, with queues building and customers encountering new curbs on transfers abroad and withdrawals from US dollar accounts.