Lebanese president asks Hezbollah-backed Hassan Diab to form government

Lebanese president asks Hezbollah-backed Hassan Diab to form government
President Michel Aoun named Hassan Diab as prime minister after a day of consultations with lawmakers in which he gained a simple majority of the 128-member parliament.
4 min read
19 December, 2019
Diab, 60, is to form a government to tackle the country's economic crisis [AFP]

Lebanon's president Thursday asked a university professor and a Hezbollah-backed former minister to form a new government, breaking a weeks-long impasse.

Michel Aoun named Hassan Diab as prime minister after a day of consultations with lawmakers in which he gained a simple majority of the 128-member parliament.

Sixty-nine lawmakers, including the parliamentary bloc of the Shia Hezbollah and Amal movements as well as lawmakers affiliated with President Michel Aoun gave him their votes.

Diab, now 60, faces the daunting task of forming a government to tackle the country's worst economic crisis since the country's devastating civil war, between 1975 and 1990.

He also failed to get the support of the country's major Sunni leaders, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which will make it difficult for him to form a new government.

Diab arrived at the Baabda Palace later Thursday to meet with Aoun who summoned him for the appointment.

It was not immediately clear whether the appointment would satisfy people in the streets who have been protesting for over two months, calling for a government made up of specialists.

'The only option'

Lebanon has been ruled by the same political clans and families since the 1975-1990 civil war and protesters have pushed for a technocratic government.

Demonstrators of all sectarian backgrounds have been in the streets every day since 17 October to demand the removal of the entire political leadership, seen as corrupt and incompetent. 

"I have strived to meet their demand for a government of experts, which I saw as the only option to address the serious social and economic crisis our country faces," Hariri said in a statement.

But, he added, staunch opposition to his plan for a technocratic government forced him to bow out.

More than five hours into the consultations, Diab had earned more nominations than the only other contender, International Criminal Court (ICC) Judge Nawaf Salam, and looked on course to succeed Hariri.

A career academic, he held the education portfolio from 2011 to 2014 in a government formed after Hezbollah brought down a previous Hariri cabinet.

The power-sharing system that was enshrined after the end of the civil war means that the prime minister's position should be filled by a member of the Sunni Muslim community.

As the leading Sunni representative, the premier is usually backed by the community's main leaders. 

But Lebanon's heavyweight Sunni politicians stopped short of backing Diab, raising fears that the next government will be polarised and unable to tackle urgent reforms demanded by protesters and the international community.

'Sunni-Shia schism'

Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said the expected appointment of Diab will only "deepen" Lebanon's crisis.

"If Diab is appointed as premier, then the coming government will be dominated by Hezbollah (and its allies) without political cover from Hariri and the Sunnis," he told AFP

"This will drive Lebanon towards a Sunni-Shia schism and drown the revolution in sectarian discourse," he said. 

Diab describes himself on his website as "one of the rare technocrat ministers since Lebanon's independence".

It remains to be seen how protesters will react to Diab, who is not politically affiliated and largely unknown among the public.

Three days after the start of the anti-government protests, he called them a "historic and awe-inspiring scene".  

"The Lebanese people have united to defend their rights to a free and dignified life," he wrote on Twitter.

While the huge crowds that filled the squares of Beirut and other Lebanese cities two months ago have dwindled, the protest movement is still alive and keeping politicians in check.

Tensions have been further heightened by the looming bankruptcy of the debt-ridden Lebanese state.

A government dominated by Hezbollah, which has been targeted by increasingly biting US sanctions, is unlikely to secure billions of dollars in frozen aid.

The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the US dollar, has lost around 30 percent of its value on the black market, while companies have been paying half-salaries over the past two months as well as laying off employees.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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