BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Thursday he decided to step down after President Michel Aoun rejected his new Cabinet lineup of 24 nonpartisan specialists to rescue the crises-ridden country.
Hariri’s dramatic move, nine months after his designation by a parliamentary majority to form a new government, is bound to plunge Lebanon into further political and economic turmoil with all the dire consequences this entails for a country teetering on the verge of total economic collapse and facing the threat of a social explosion.
In a quick negative reaction to Hariri’s decision, the Lebanese pound nosedived, hitting yet another record low Thursday, trading at 21,150 to the dollar on the black market.
Hariri said he told Aoun he was stepping down after failing to agree with him on the proposed Cabinet lineup.
“I met with the president and we held consultations on the Cabinet issue. During the conversation, the president requested amendments which I considered to be substantial in the lineup,” a grim-faced Hariri told reporters after a 20-minute meeting with Aoun at Baabda Palace.
“We also discussed matters relating to the confidence [vote] and the naming of other Christian ministers and other things. It is clear that the position [of Aoun] has not changed on this issue and it is clear that we will not be able to agree with his excellency the president," he added.
In their first meeting in nearly four months, Hariri Wednesday presented Aoun with a new Cabinet lineup in the hope of ending a political stalemate that for nearly 11 months has left Lebanon without a fully empowered government to tackle multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown.
Hariri said he offered to give Aoun more time to think over the proposed Cabinet lineup of 24 nonpartisan specialists in line with the French initiative and also Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s initiative. Both initiatives call for a new Cabinet without a blocking one-third plus one [veto power] granted to any side.
“But he [Aoun] told me 'we will not be able to agree’. That's why I apologized for [not] forming the government, and may God help the country," Hariri said, adding that he will talk about the Cabinet crisis and the obstacles he had encountered in his attempts to form a new government during an interview with Al-Jadeed TV Thursday night.
Hariri and Future Movement MPs have long accused Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, of blocking the government formation with their insistence on gaining a blocking one-third plus one [veto power] something the premier-designate has vowed not to grant to any party.
Lebanon is suffering an economic depression the World Bank has described as one of the most severe in modern history. Its currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value in less than two years, leading to spiraling poverty and crippling shortages.
Hariri was designated to form the new government on Oct. 22, after the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab in the aftermath of the massive Aug. 4 Beirut Port explosion that killed 210 people, wounded thousands and devastated entire neighborhoods in the capital. Diab continues in a caretaker capacity.
The Cabinet formation process has been stalled for months over a deepening rift between Aoun and Hariri regarding who should name two Christian ministers who are not part of the president’s Cabinet share. Aoun and Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, strongly reject Hariri’s insistence on naming the two Christian ministers which the premier-designate argues that this is part of his constitutional powers.
Aoun also wants the FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc headed by Bassil to grant the new government a vote of confidence in return for Aoun being allotted eight ministers in the proposed 24-member Cabinet. Bassil has declared that the FPM would neither participate in the government, nor grant it a confidence vote.
Hariri said Wednesday the proposed government “can rescue the country and begin working seriously to halt the collapse.”
The proposed Cabinet list divides the 24 ministers into three groups: eight ministers for Aoun, eight ministers for Hariri and his allies, and eight ministers for Berri, Hezbollah and their allies, without veto power granted to any side.
Hariri’s decision to step aside came amid mounting Arab and international, namely US and French, pressure on Lebanese leaders to accelerate the formation of a new government to enact a slew of essential reforms as a condition for unlocking billions of dollars in promised aid to rescue Lebanon from all-out economic collapse. It also came amid a decision by France and its European partners to impose sanctions on Lebanese politicians accused of obstructing the government formation.
The Aoun-Hariri meeting capped weeks of tensions and rounds of war of words between them with each accusing the other of blocking the government formation.
Hariri’s decision also came a day after he paid a short visit to Cairo where he held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who expressed full support for the premier-designate in his efforts to resolve the crippling economic and political crisis in Lebanon. Egypt was also reported to have asked Hariri not to give up on forming a cabinet.
Hariri has been struggling to form a proposed Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to be tasked with implementing a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to lift Lebanon out of a crippling economic and financial crunch, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Patrick Durel, French President Emmanuel Macron’s adviser for Middle East and North Africa affairs, urged in talks with Aoun and rival Lebanese leaders to expedite the formation of a new government to begin implementing reforms.
Durel’s visit comes amid intensified US-French diplomatic activity aimed at pulling Lebanon out of its severe political and economic crisis.
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo met Monday with Saudi Ambassador Walid al-Bukhari at the Saudi Embassy in Beirut. The meeting with Bukhari came a few days after the US and French ambassadors held talks with officials at the Saudi Foreign Ministry in Riyadh last week centering on ways to help Lebanon out of its political and economic crises.
Shea and Grillo met Aoun Thursday and handed him a joint letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in which “they affirmed their countries’ concern with the situation in Lebanon and the need to speed up the formation of a new government to face the critical situation through which Lebanon is going,” the presidency’s media office said.
The two envoys also briefed Aoun on the results of their talks on the political and economic crises in Lebanon with Saudi officials in Riyadh last week in the wake of the trilateral meetings among Blinken, Drian, and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud on June 29 in Matera, Italy on the margins of the G-20 conference, the state-run National News Agency said.
The European Union Monday agreed to adopt a sanctions regime for Lebanese leaders by the end of July, France said, in an effort to force a stable government to emerge from nearly a year of political chaos following the Beirut blast.
Criteria for EU sanctions such as travel bans and assets freezes for Lebanese politicians are likely to include corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial misdeeds and human rights abuses, according to a diplomatic note seen by Reuters.