Technocrats or autocrats? Lebanon's new cabinet meet as protesters slam 'government of failure'

Technocrats or autocrats? Lebanon's new cabinet meet as protesters slam 'government of failure'
Prime Minister Hassan Diab unveiled Lebanon's new 'technocratic' cabinet on Tuesday evening, but protesters' desires have not yet been satiated.
5 min read
22 January, 2020
Prime Minister Hassan Diab has admitted to facing a 'catastrophe' [Getty]
Lebanon's new cabinet met for the first time on Wednesday amid continuing anger from protesters who deem Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government doomed to fail.

Diab's 20-strong cabinet, unveiled on Tuesday, faces the twin challenges of the country's nosediving economy and a  tenacious protest movement in swing since 17 October last year.

The former education minister has promised to meet the demands from the street but has so far failed to assuage widespread concerns that his government will represent the latest showing of a political elite Lebanese protesters have vowed to oust.

Diab takes over the role from Saad Al-Hariri, who resigned two weeks into the landmark protests. Lebanon's various political factions struggled to agree upon a replacement candidate, while demonstrators demanded a technocratic, non-sectarian government.

The new premier has termed his government one of experts, but protesters are not so sure of that designation.

Even before the cabinet was announced, thousands of people poured onto the streets, closing major roads in Beirut and other parts of the country. Later, a group of protesters near parliament threw stones, firecrackers and sticks at security forces, who responded with tear gas and pepper spray.

Read more: Even if Lebanese politicians form a new government, it is doomed to fail. Here's why

On Tuesday evening, demonstrators burned tyres as they expressed their displeasure at the new line-up, with some singing "Yalla [come on], get out Hassan".

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"Instead of the corrupt politicians, we got the corrupt politicians' friends," said Ahmad Zaid, a 21-year-old student.

Demonstrators have complained that political groups were still involved in the naming of the new ministers, even if they are specialists and academics.

Diab has rebutted that the new picks have no political loyalties despite being annointed in a process involving bickering between factions with little regard for the desires of protesters.

"This government is going from one failure to another," 43-year-old Nouhad Salloum told The Daily Star. #GovernmentOfFailure was a trending hashtag on Twitter in Lebanon on Tuesday evening.

"The people have been sacrificing themselves for 97 days demanding an independent government... but [the politicians] brought one that suits them."

Karin, 18, added: "I am with the people and the revolution, I am not against anyone... I just wish someone would listen to us; that's all we want."

Similar rallies took place in Tripoli - a hotbed of the protest movement - Sidon, Byblos and other cities.

Read more: Journalists are also victims of Lebanon's security clampdown

The 61-year-old former professor admitted on Wednesday he faces a number of stark challenges.

"Today we are in a financial, economic and social dead end," he said in remarks read by a government official after the new cabinet's inaugural meeting in Beirut.

"We are facing a catastrophe," he said.

"Government of last resort," was the headline on the front page of Al-Akhbar, a daily newspaper close to the powerful Hezbollah movement that backed Diab's designation last month.

Western sanctions on the Iran-backed organisation are stacking up and economists have argued the new government might struggle to secure the aid it so badly needs.

But French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the first leaders to react to the formation of the new government, said he would "do everything, during this deep crisis that they are going through, to help".

The cabinet comprises 20 ministers and among its six women is Zeina Akar, Lebanon's first-ever female defence minister. The number is a record for the country.

To downsize the cabinet, some portfolios were merged resulting in at times baffling combinations such as a single ministry for culture and agriculture.

A Lebanese man exits a bank damaged by protests in the northern city of Tripoli [Getty]

Economy in freefall

Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said on Wednesday it would be "impossible" for the Lebanese lira exchange rate to the US dollar to "return to what it was".

He told broadcaster LBC that "stopping the collapse" of Lebanon's economy was faesible but would require foreign support.

Lebanon has one of the world's highest debt-to-GDP ratios and economists have argued it is hard to see how the near bankrupt country could repay its foreign debt.

A looming default on Lebanon's debt, which has been steadily downgraded deeper into junk status by rating agencies, has sent the dollar soaring on the parallel exchange market.

On Tuesday evening, the Syndicate of Money Changers in Lebanon issued a statement saying it had agreed to set the exchange rate at a maximum of 2,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, after it reached 2,500 pounds to the dollar last week. The official price still stands at 1,507 to the dollar.

Read more: Three months after Lebanon's uprising began, protesters are radicalising and targeting politically connected banks

The liquidity crunch in Lebanon has led banks to impose crippling capital controls, in turn seeing the banks themselves become a key target of protesters' anger.

"Regarding the economic situation, I repeat that this is one of our priorities," Diab said Tuesday night.

"We need to be given a little time," he added.

Alain Aoun, nephew of President Michel Aoun and a senior member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), told Reuters on Wednesday that an International Monetary Fund programme could be an option for saving the economy.

The FPM, founded by the president, nominated six of the 20 new ministers.

The new government may be wary to implement an IMF programme if its demands exert too much pressure on an already struggling public, however.

"The top priority is to put in place a rescue programme for financing Lebanon's needs and one of the options is an IMF programme," Aoun said.

"But we have to understand first what are the requirements and to see if they are bearable or acceptable to us as Lebanese, because we don't want to have a social problem in addition to the financial crisis... We have to be careful not to trigger social unrest," he said. 

Agencies contributed to this report

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