BEIRUT: Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri has informed top officials, including President Michel Aoun and Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, that he is neither interested in returning as premier nor in naming his successor, political sources said Thursday.
One source said Hariri had informed Bassil of his decision Wednesday during a meeting to discuss the shape of the new Cabinet.
Hariri has been insistent that the next government, if headed by him, would not include Bassil, who has been a main target of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets over the past 22 days.
“The situation now looks very bleak and concerning. This could take months to be resolved,” the source told The Daily Star.
Bassil, however, had sought to maintain a seat for himself in the next Cabinet. Hariri and the FPM leader held two meetings earlier this week in which Bassil made a number of proposals on the shape of the next government; however it appears that none were satisfactory for Hariri.
After meeting Aoun, Hariri who has remained tightlipped over recent developments said, “I visited the president to discuss the subject of the government, we will continue consultations with the remaining parties.”
Speaker Nabih Berri once again threw his support behind Hariri and, reiterating his “insistence” that the outgoing premier be designated to form the new government, said, “It is in the interests of Lebanon, and I support the interests of Lebanon.”
Despite many protesters saying they do not want Hariri to head a new government, he represents perhaps the quickest and safest choice due to support for him in the international community and among a number of political blocs. Should he publicly step aside, there would be no clear candidate to lead the next government, meaning the process could take even more time at a moment when Lebanon - embroiled in a depending economic and financial crisis - has little time to spare.
“The economic situation was a crucial part of the talks between the president and Hariri because it is very, very, very concerning,” the source said.
In a sign of compounding crises, fuel importers warned of potential shortages Thursday, leading lines to form at many gas stations for at least the third time in under a month. Meanwhile hospitals are set to undertake a one-day warning strike next Friday over deterioration in the healthcare sector and the state’s failure to pay its dues.
Reuters reported that banks informed Lebanese traders unused credit lines were being suspended, meaning they may struggle to pay for imports of a wide range of products.
“So far we are still finding some liquidity to manage some transactions but the cash is being squeezed so we are worried about the longer-term,” Hani Bohsali, general manager of Bohsali Foods and president of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs, Consumer Products and Drinks, told Reuters.
Hariri had met with President Michel Aoun Thursday to discuss Cabinet formation and the worsening economic situation in the country.
Earlier in the day, a statement from the presidency said that Aoun’s talks with Lebanon’s various political sides were ongoing, in preparation for setting a date for binding parliamentary consultations.
The meeting came as thousands of protesters, many of them students, continued a nationwide civil disobedience campaign aimed at pressuring for accountability for years of corruption and mismanagement.
Caretaker Education Minister Akram Chehayeb told student protesters to go to class during the day and then protest after school, asking them not to “waste the school year.” But Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt, who appointed Chehayeb, later tweeted that he had consulted with the minister and they had determined it “inappropriate to oppose the will of the students,” given the circumstances, which he said were “exceptional in the history of Lebanon.”
Protesters continued to target public institutions seen as corrupt or inefficient, such as state-run Electricite du Liban, in addition to private banks that are seen as having profited off Lebanon’s high debt while at the same time paying low taxes. Many also gathered outside the houses of former ministers they accuse of corruption; including Caretaker Telecoms Minister Mohammad Choucair, former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Financial Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim filed charges against Lebanese Customs chief Badri Daher for squandering public funds, in the latest high-profile case overseen by the judge to progress this week.
Details of the charges were not made public, but Ibrahim’s move comes just a few days after investigative journalist Riad Kobaissi released voice recordings on the local TV news channel Al Jadeed, which he claims provide evidence of corruption by Daher.
On Wednesday, Ibrahim filed charges against Omar Kaddouha, the head of the Flight Safety Department at the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation, alleging embezzlement of public funds and the acceptance of bribes.
Caretaker Justice Minister Albert Serhan has said that street pressure played a role in getting stalled corruption cases moving.
This article was amended on Friday, November 08 2019
An earlier version of this story said that Ibrahim had filed charges against Mohammad Chehabeddine, who was identified as the head of the Civil Aviation Authority. Ibrahim in fact filed charges against Omar Kaddouha, the head of the Flight Safety Department at the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation. Also, Chehabeddine is the acting head of the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation; the Civil Aviation Authority, a quasi-independent body meant to replace the DGCA, was legislated but never created. The Daily Star regrets the error.