Lebanon: Saad Hariri named PM, promises cabinet reform

Beirut - Hariri's return to politics comes after Beirut's massive port blast killed more than 200 people in August.

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Published: Thu 22 Oct 2020, 9:50 PM

Last updated: Fri 23 Oct 2020, 2:11 AM

Three-time Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri was renamed to the post Thursday to create a reform-orientated cabinet that can lift the country out of its worst economic crisis in decades.

Hariri, 50, made his comeback to take on the difficult task almost a year after stepping down under pressure from an unprecedented protest movement demanding a complete overhaul of Lebanon's political system.

The country is under huge international pressure to form a crisis cabinet of independents to address a plummeting economy made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and the devastating blast at the Beirut port on August 4.

Immediately after President Michel Aoun named him, the returning premier vowed to form a cabinet of experts, in line with conditions set by French President Emmanuel Macron to help rescue the debt-ridden country from crisis.

Hariri said he would "form a cabinet of non politically aligned experts with the mission of economic, financial and administrative reforms contained in the French initiative roadmap".

"I will work on forming a government quickly because time is running out," he said, calling it the country's "only and last chance".

He was set to start consulting the country's various parliamentary blocs from Friday, the parliament said in a statement.

Cabinet formation is often a drawn-out process in Lebanon, where a complex governing system seeks to maintain a precarious balance between its various political and religious communities.

Hariri himself took eight months to hammer out his last cabinet after 2018 parliamentary elections.

- Celebratory gunfire -

His nomination on Thursday was backed by a majority of 65 lawmakers, while 53 abstained from naming anyone during consultations with the president.

The parliamentary bloc of the powerful Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah did not give the president a name of a preferred candidate, but its main ally the Amal Movement supported Hariri's nomination.

The UN envoy to Lebanon Jan Kubis said the onus was once again on political parties to back change.

"It is the traditional political forces that have again put on themselves to choose the way forward, regardless (of) their numerous failures in the past and deep skepticism about the future," he wrote on Twitter.

There was no immediate reaction in the streets from the protest movement, which had however long said it did want the return of the political old guard it accuses of ineptitude and corruption.

Hariri's supporters fired celebratory gunfire in the northern city of Tripoli, which a medical source told AFP wounded three including an elderly man and someone cleaning in front of his shop.

Hariri's return to politics comes after Beirut's massive port blast killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of the capital in the country's worst peacetime disaster.

The authorities said the August 4 explosion occurred after a fire broke out in a warehouse storing hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

A probe into the cause of one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever has resulted in the arrest of 25 people, including top port and customs officials.

- 'Political interference' -

But Human Rights Watch said Thursday the probe had failed to yield any credible results more than two months later, and called for an "independent, international investigation".

"Political interference coupled with long-standing failings of the judicial system have made a credible and impartial domestic investigation seemingly impossible," the rights group said.

Outrage over the disaster blamed on official negligence led to the resignation of the government of prime minister Hassan Diab, who was replaced by a relatively unknown diplomat, Mustapha Adib.

But Adib faced resistance from some of the main parties and threw in the towel less than a month later, leaving Lebanon rudderless to face soaring poverty.

Aoun Wednesday accused unnamed officials of blocking reforms long demanded by international donors, including the overhaul of the power sector and a forensic audit of the central bank.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian Wednesday warned change was desperately needed in the former French protectorate.

"The more we wait, the more the boat sinks," he said.

Demonstrations against Hariri took place in central Beirut late Wednesday.

Dozens of protesters shouted slogans against him and faced off with his supporters as security forces stepped in between both sides.

Local media said Hariri supporters burned a giant cut-out of a clenched fist bearing the word "thawra" or revolution in Arabic but his party denied any involvement.

The emblem, a symbol of the protest movement, was rebuilt Thursday, an AFP photographer said.

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