Lebanon to start government formation talks as protests persist

Demonstrators reject latest frontrunner for PM, businessman Samir Khatib, as being too close to ruling elite.

Protesters are seen surrounded by tear gas that was fired towards them by Lebanese riot police during an anti-government protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.
Protesters are surrounded by tear gas fired by Lebanese riot police in Beirut on Wednesday [Bilal Hussein/AP]

Consultations to form a new government in Lebanon will formally begin on Monday, the presidency has announced, more than a month after a wave of protests led the prime minister, Saad Hariri, to resign.

“The presidency has set Monday as the date for the parliamentary consultations” for the designation of a new prime minister, the presidency announced in a short statement on social media on Wednesday.

Despite continued pressure from a nationwide protest movement to radically overhaul the political system, President Michel Aoun had so far stopped short of announcing formal talks to agree on a new lineup.

He and several key partners in the fractious outgoing governing coalition had apparently insisted on reaching a deal before announcing the start of formal talks with Lebanon’s parliamentary blocs.

Hariri announced his resignation on October 29, nearly two weeks into an unprecedented nationwide protest movement that has been demanding an end to corruption and sectarian-based politics.

Several names have surfaced since, each time prompting the scorn or the anger of the protest camp, which has accused the ruling elite of using stalling tactics to cling to their jobs.

In recent weeks, politicians failed to agree on the shape and form of a new government. Hariri had insisted on heading a government of technocrats, while his opponents, including Hezbollah, want a cabinet made up of both experts and politicians.


The latest frontrunner to lead the new government is Samir Khatib, a businessman who is less widely known than most former prime ministers and has no experience in politics.

Hariri, a Sunni politician, said on Tuesday he supports Khatib’s nomination to become the next prime minister, a move that will likely pave the way for the formation of a new cabinet amid a severe economic and financial crisis.

“There are still some details and God willing something good” will happen, Hariri said, speaking to reporters on Tuesday night. “Everyone is trying to get through this difficult period.”

Politicians from the Future Movement, which is headed by Sunni leader Hariri, as well as powerful Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, are all expected to back him at the consultations, sources familiar with their positions said.

The support of Lebanon’s main Sunni and Shia Muslim political forces would make Khatib the frontrunner in leading the small Mediterranean country, which faces its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

‘We will not accept this’

The news of the possible nomination of Khatib, the head of a large contracting and construction company, sparked spontaneous demonstrations as protesters perceive him as being too close to the ruling elite.

Protesters demand the wholesale removal of the current political class and have insisted on a government dominated by technocrats.

Marching in the middle of traffic with a dozen other protesters on Wednesday evening, Fadi Hamdan, 27, said the latest name being circulated would not do.

“This person for us represents the corrupt authorities,” the unemployed pilot told AFP News Agency.

“They can’t lie to us and say he’s independent,” he said.

On Tuesday evening, hundreds blocked a strategic intersection in Beirut, known as the Ring Road, chanting against Khatib.

Security forces tried to prevent the protesters from blocking the road that links east to west Beirut, and after a warning, used tear gas to disperse them.

“We will not accept this as people, and we will not accept this as revolutionaries, because we know that we are heading toward the abyss with this government,” Elie Kayrouz, an anti-government protester at the Ring Road, told the Associated Press News Agency, describing Khatib and other names leaked to the media who may form the new cabinet as connected to the outgoing one.

The protests, which kicked off on October 17 over a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, have brought the country to a standstill and its economy has continued to slide in recent weeks.

Outcry after suicides

Even as Aoun announced the beginning of consultations, hundreds of protesters were gathering in central Beirut for a previously planned rally to block the main highway.

They chanted in the middle of the highway after local media earlier in the day reported a father of three in his early 40s had shot himself dead over mounting debt.

“How many more people need to commit suicide for them to wake up?” one man told a local television channel, after the second such reported death in four days.

Protesters lit candles on the roadside in memory of those who took their lives, apparently crushed by the burden of Lebanon’s spiralling economic crisis.

The Lebanese pound has lost up to 30 percent of its value on the black market and many economic analysts now predict there is little any government can do to prevent Lebanon from defaulting.

Source: News Agencies