Lebanon News

Diab refuses to step aside, plans 20-member Cabinet

Anti-government protesters shout slogans in Beirut, Dec. 22, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Undeterred by the swelling street protests against his designation, Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab pledged Sunday to form a government of 20 independent specialists to revitalize the battered economy and fight corruption, saying he would not step aside.

It was Diab’s toughest statement against his opponents since he was designated by President Michel Aoun last Thursday to form the next government after gaining the support of a parliamentary majority.

After concluding daylong non-binding consultations with parliamentary blocs and independent lawmakers in Parliament Saturday on the formation of a new Cabinet, Diab said Sunday he had met with representatives of the protest movement that has staged a popular uprising since Oct. 17, demanding the formation of a technocratic government independent of political parties, a change in the country’s sectarian-based ruling system and the removal of the entire political class it deems corrupt and incompetent.

“Lebanon is in intensive care and it needs all possible efforts by the political parties and the popular movement,” Diab wrote on his Twitter account. “We need a government of independents and specialists. My goal is to form a small government of about 20 ministers.”

“I have begun dialogue with the [protest] movement. The time for the Cabinet formation will be between four to six weeks,” added Diab, a university professor and a former education minister.

Diab, 60, said he had discussed with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri Saturday the makeup of the next government, the number of its ministers and the distribution of portfolios.

“I stressed that the [government’s] program will be to fight corruption and revitalize the economic and financial situation,” he said.

Diab, whose nomination was endorsed by Berri’s Amal Movement, Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement and their allies, said he hoped that the formation of a government of specialists would be an “occasion to close ranks of the Lebanese and represent all parliamentary segments, including the [protest] movement, the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party.” Earlier Sunday, a small crowd of protesters rallied outside Diab’s residence in Beirut’s Tallet al-Khayat area, as he met with “representatives” of the leaderless uprising.

Demonstrators made clear their disapproval of the meetings, which began at noon and ended just after 2 p.m.

While those who met Diab stressed that they did so in a personal capacity, the protesters said they rejected anyone who claimed to be an envoy of the uprising.

Later Sunday night, hundreds of protesters, some came from Tripoli, gathered in Downtown Beirut, calling on Diab to step aside. Some protesters shouted slogans in support of Hariri.

Speaking to reporters Saturday after consulting with various parliamentary blocs and independent lawmakers in Parliament on the formation of a new Cabinet, Diab said he intended to sit down with members of the protest movement and incorporate their demands into his agenda. He had asked protesters to give him a “chance” to form a Cabinet of independent experts.

Asked whether he would step down if he failed to form a government made up of independent specialists, Diab said: “The prime minister is the one who forms the government. I will not step aside.” He added that no one has placed any conditions on him concerning the Cabinet formation.

“All [political] sides are in line with my proposal for a government of independents and specialists, including Hezbollah,” Diab said, adding that he would name independent specialists for the next government.

“I heard encouragement [from MPs] to form a government as soon as possible. The common ground among MPs was how to emerge from the suffocating crisis through which Lebanon is passing,” he added.

Asked whether he received cover from the political parties to form a technocratic government that excluded politicians, Diab said: “My cover is that I am independent and I don’t demand anything for myself. I want the best to resolve Lebanon’s problems.”

The majority of blocs called for the formation of a salvation government to rescue the deteriorating economic and financial situation.

Speaking to reporters after meeting Diab, Future MP Samir Jisr said the Future Movement’s bloc told the premier-designate it would not participate in the government.

So did the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party blocs. The PSP’s parliamentary bloc, which boycotted the consultations with Diab, also said it would not participate in the next government .

A senior Hezbollah official said Diab’s designation provided a “real opportunity” to form a government to “save Lebanon from the worst.”

“This opportunity has created an atmosphere of hope to restore confidence. Therefore, we must uphold it and work to make it successful in the framework of a salvation reform government,” Sheikh Nabih Kawouk, a member of Hezbollah’s Central Council, told a memorial ceremony in the south. He called on rival political factions to help the premier-designate to form “a salvation reform government, rather than a confrontational government.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. spokesman said U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale had encouraged Lebanese leaders to support the formation of a government committed to implementing sustained reforms.

Commenting on Hale’s two-day visit to Lebanon, U.S. spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement Sunday: “Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale concluded a two-day trip to Lebanon where he met with government officials, including President Michel Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and political party representatives. Under-Secretary Hale encouraged the Lebanese leaders to put aside partisan interests and support formation of a government committed to and capable of undertaking meaningful, sustained reforms.”

Ortagus said Hale called on the “government, army and security services to continue to guarantee the rights and safety of protesters. He reaffirmed America’s longstanding partnership and enduring commitment to a secure, stable and prosperous Lebanon.”

In a statement after meeting Lebanese leaders Friday, Hale said the U.S. and other countries were ready to help Lebanon “enter a new chapter of economic prosperity” only when Lebanese leaders made a commitment to reform.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 23, 2019, on page 1.

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