Caretaker prime minister announces he will not seek top post amid heightened tensions after recent violence.
Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Thursday tasked former Education Minister Hassan Diab with forming the country’s next government after Hezbollah and its allies nominated him during long-awaited talks with members of parliament.
Lebanon has had a caretaker government since October 29, when Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned amid a mass uprising against the ruling elite.
Hariri had been expected to be selected again. However, he stepped aside on Wednesday, saying that other parties had not agreed to his conditions to form a technocratic government – a main demand of protesters who, however, reject Hariri.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Tripoli and Beirut to denounce Diab’s designation. Bins and tyres were set on fire in the streets of the capital, blocking roads. Meanwhile, several hundred people gathered by central Beirut’s Nejmeh Square, the seat of parliament, chanting a Christmas-themed slogan against the prime minister-designate.
“Helo ho, hela ho, hela ho. They brought in Hassan Diab and we will bring him down,” they sang.
Diab served as education minister from 2011 to 2014 in a cabinet made up of Hezbollah and its allies. The 60-year-old father of three studied computer engineering in the United Kingdom before returning to the Lebanese capital in 1985 to join the American University of Beirut as an assistant professor. He has remained at the university ever since, rising to the post of vice president and professor of computer engineering.
Diab addressed street protesters directly during prepared remarks read from the presidential palace, in which he said there was “no going back to before October 17,” the day the demonstrations demanding an overhaul of the political system began.
“I feel that what you have said represents me and all those in Lebanon who want to create a state of law and justice,” he said. “Our efforts should focus entirely on stopping the [economic and financial] collapse and returning confidence.”
Diab said he would begin consultations with parties on the formation of the next government on Saturday, and urged protesters to “give me a chance”.
“I call on Lebanese in all squares and all areas to be partners in a workshop of reform,” Diab said.
His selection by Hezbollah and its allies to become prime minister comes on the same day Germany‘s parliament voted to ban Hezbollah and as a senior United States official, David Hale, arrives in Beirut for talks with top officials.
The US has designated Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organisation and has ramped up sanctions against members of the group and those who facilitate its financing as part of US President Donald Trump‘s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and its proxies in the region.
There has been a split in Washington over whether to sanction Lebanese state entities or institutions. Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told Al Jazeera that a government formed by Diab could push the US over the edge and deal a critical blow to Lebanon at a time when it finds itself in the midst of a severe economic crisis.
“A government like this will be perceived as Hezbollah’s government, whether you like it or not, by the entire international community,” Nader said. “This will isolate Lebanon from donors and expose it to sanctions at a very critical point in time where it badly needs the international community to help deal with the collapse.”
A host of nations pledged some $11bn in soft loans to Lebanon in April 2018, but Hariri’s government failed to implement the reforms necessary to unlock those funds.
Lebanon has the third-highest debt burden in the world as a ratio of gross domestic product, and finds itself in a spiralling debt curve. At the same time, an economic slowdown and shortage of dollars have led the local currency to lose around a third of its value against the US dollar since October.
During Thursday’s consultations, Diab received 69 votes from the parliamentary blocs of Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a group of five pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs and a number of other allied blocs.
Meanwhile 42 MPs abstained from voting, including Hariri’s Future Movement bloc, the Lebanese Forces bloc, former Prime Ministers Tammam Salam and Najib Mikati and a number of independent parliamentarians.
Nawaf Salam, a judge on the International Court of Justice, received 13 votes from the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), Kataeb Party and FPM MP Michel Moawad. Political activist and professor Halima el-Kaakour received a single vote from independent MP Paula Yacoubian.
The path forward is uncertain. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech less than a week ago that a so-called “one-colour” government would not be best suited to secure the stability needed to face Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis and that it would be open to all kinds of attacks.
But the Future Movement on Thursday said it would not participate in the next government, a pledge already made by the PSP and the Lebanese Forces. This means Diab will likely have to form a government made up of Hezbollah and its allies.
Diab will also likely face questioning over whether he really represents Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, in a country where the sectarian power-sharing system necessitates the prime minister be Sunni.
Diab, a Sunni, was named by only a handful of Sunni MPs.
As the consultations went on Thursday, internal security forces and army personnel deployed around Diab’s house in large numbers before a protest expected to reject his selection.
Online supporters of the Lebanese uprising were quick to say Diab did not fit the demands of street protesters who have sought a government of independent experts.
Activist Jonathan Dagher said on Facebook: “The revolution: We want a prime minister from outside the political establishment. The state: did you mean ‘a former minister?'”
Activist Joey Ayoub said that the consultations were like “a soap opera with no interesting character.”