Lebanon delays nomination of new PM amid protests, divisions

President postpones talks which were expected to result in Saad Hariri being named as next prime minister.

Lebanese demonstrators south slogans in the capital Beirut on December 15, 2019. Lebanese police clashed with anti-government protesters in Beirut late Sunday, firing tear gas to prevent them from bre
Lebanese police clashed with anti-government protesters in Beirut late Sunday, firing tear gas to prevent them from breaching barricades near Parliament [Anwar Amro/AFP]

Beirut, Lebanon – The nomination of Lebanon’s next prime minister has been postponed after major Christian parties said they would not support the candidacy of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, presenting a new impasse after weeks of political wrangling.

Hariri resigned on October 29 amid widespread protests against Lebanon‘s ruling elite, but had seemed set to return on Monday after all other candidates failed to secure enough support from the country’s Sunni Muslim establishment.

Under Lebanon’s complex political system, where power is shared among religious groups, the prime minister must always be a Sunni, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. Meanwhile, according to the modern-day interpretation of a key article in the Constitution, there must be parity in the representation of Christians and Muslims in Parliament and government.

This premise of sectarian power-sharing now poses the greatest obstacle to Hariri’s candidacy, as without the support of the major Christian parties in government, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Lebanese Forces, the government’s constitutional legitimacy could be called into question.

A statement from Hariri’s office said that the caretaker PM on Monday requested that Aoun postpone the binding parliamentary consultations during which a new prime minister is selected, “in order to avoid adding constitutional and national problems to the great social, economic and financial crisis facing our country”.

Aoun rescheduled the talks for Thursday.

Riding the wave

Since he resigned, Hariri has said he would return to government only in a cabinet made up of technocrats and experts – a key demand of protesters, most of whom have rejected Hariri’s potential return as prime minister.

Thousands protested in Beirut on Sunday night to reject Hariri’s expected nomination.

Hezbollah and its allies, the Amal Movement, along with the FPM, have rejected Hariri’s conditions and instead called for a government of both politicians and technocrats. Last week, the FPM announced it would not participate in any government headed by Hariri.

Early on Monday, the Lebanese Forces – which is nominally allied with Hariri – announced it would not name anyone during the planned consultations, dealing him another blow.

Bassel Salloukh, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, said that these developments effectively ended Hariri’s attempt to strengthen his hand on the back of the uprising.

“It seems he tried to free-ride the revolution, but his bluff has been called,” Salloukh told Al Jazeera.

Hariri had made concessions to the FPM in 2016 in a deal that saw the party’s founder Michel Aoun elected president and Hariri return as prime minister.

Salloukh said Hariri would now be forced to make concessions again: either back someone else for prime minister, or try to find a way out with either of the major Christian parties.

A senior Lebanese Forces official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that the party would not reverse its decision to refrain from naming a prime minister, so that it can be “convinced” of the makeup of the next government before backing it in Parliament.

“We have to wait and see if the final outcome is appropriate or not, because there are so many deals being made and so many people excluded from these discussions,” the source said.

“As long as the prime minister and government are accepted by the people, we will give it confidence,” the source added, meaning Hariri would likely be excluded “unless he can convince the people he’s the right choice”.

‘No more delays’

Meanwhile, the FPM is not giving up any ground either.

Pierre Raffoul, a political adviser to President Aoun, told local news channel Al Jadeed that Hariri’s condition of a purely technocratic government was a non-starter, and that consultations would be held on Thursday, putting pressure on Hariri to find a way to break the deadlock.

“I want to tell the prime minister: if you are still coming from the standpoint of ‘I will choose and I will decide’ … That won’t work with us,” Raffoul said. “[Consultations] won’t be delayed any more, it will be on Thursday, either he [Hariri] is named or someone else than him, let everyone bear their responsibilities.”

Salloukh said he believed the deadlock effectively returned negotiations “back to square one”, but that the impasse could create the space for a new type of government to emerge.

“This kind of inability of the political elite to find agreement may pave the way for a truly independent professional government,” he said.

There is also the possibility that Hariri could be named prime minister, but the process of actually forming a government could take a long time. The previous cabinet formation process took almost nine months.

Lebanon is in the midst of a deep economic and financial crisis. The country is the world’s third-most indebted nation as a ratio of gross domestic product and is spiralling into more debt.

At the same time, a dollar shortage has threatened to cause shortages of basic imports such as fuel, wheat and medicine, and has pressured a decades-old currency peg of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar. Rates were higher on Monday, at 2,000 pounds.

Business as usual

The UN’s representative in Lebanon Jan Kubis Monday said the postponement of parliamentary consultations was “either a sign that following the events and statements of the last days politicians start to understand that they cannot neglect the voice of the people, or another attempt to buy time for business as usual.”

“But with the collapsing economy, it is a risky hazard both for the politicians, but even more so for Lebanon and its people,” he said.

Salloukh said a protracted delay in forming a cabinet could be disastrous.

“[It is] not simply a case of these politicians shooting themselves in the foot. They are shooting the entire country in the head,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera