Lebanon News

Khatib back in front for PM as consultations approach

Anti-government protesters shout slogans as they demonstrate in front of the Central Bank in Beirut, Nov. 28, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Samir Khatib remains the most likely candidate to be named prime minister in parliamentary consultations, which a source at Baabda Palace said Thursday would be called at the beginning of next week.

“Meetings today have produced positive results, and the president is set to call for the consultations early next week,” the source said.

Khatib’s front-runner position was confirmed by Mustafa Alloush, a member of the Future Movement’s politburo. Alloush told The Daily Star that Khatib’s candidacy had appeared to be on shaky ground earlier Thursday, but contacts between political forces during the day had once again heightened chances of Khatib being selected by a large enough share of MPs to be officially designated.

Lebanon has been without a government for a month, as the economic and financial situation in the country rapidly deteriorates.

President Michel Aoun is set to head a meeting to discuss Lebanon’s financial situation Friday. It is expected to include caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh, the head of the Association of Banks in Lebanon Salim Sfeir, caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s economic adviser Nadim Munla, and caretaker Minister of State for Information Technology Adel Afiouni.

The Baabda source said a decision had been made to hold such a meeting every two weeks given the severity of the situation.

In the latest sign of the growing crisis, which stems partially from a dollar shortage in the country, the Lebanese pound was trading against the dollar at around LL2,300 during the day Thursday. It had depreciated in value by more than LL300 since Monday, when it first passed the LL2,000 mark.

The rate dropped back down significantly Thursday evening to between LL1,700 and LL1,800 due to a large amount of dollars being exchanged to pounds, a move that will likely only temporarily assuage the effects of the dollar shortage.

Increasing pressure on the official exchange rate - pegged at LL1507.5 - comes as the country remains rudderless following Hariri’s resignation on Oct. 29 amid unprecedented street protests against the political class.It was not clear whether Khatib’s candidacy would satisfy street protesters, who continued to stage demonstrations - albeit in smaller numbers - on the 43rd day of the uprising. But they have rejected any candidates tied to the political and business elite in the country. As the executive vice president of engineering company Khatib & Alami, a prominent contracting firm with government projects in Lebanon and across the Middle East, Khatib might not be seen as the independent expert the protesters have sought.

Hariri previously said he would head a technocratic government, but that demand has been rejected by Hezbollah and its allies the Free Patriotic Movement and Amal, leading Hariri to withdraw his candidacy earlier this week.

Hariri’s support is seen as crucial for any candidate looking to be designated prime minister, given he is the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc representing Sunnis. The caretaker premier met with Khatib Wednesday, after which reports circulated that the meeting had not gone well.

In response, Khatib said in a statement Thursday that he had “only received all the support and absolute responsiveness” from Hariri, and that reports the meeting had been negative were entirely false.

“Till now, it seems that Khatib is leading, but the fact that the president hasn’t yet called consultations means that the issue may not be entirely resolved yet,” Alloush said. “They are continuing to try to pressure Hariri to head the government, but his demands for that are clear.”

Though Hariri had officially announced that he was no longer under consideration for premier, Alloush said there was still a chance he would end up being designated by most MPs.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 29, 2019, on page 1.

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