Lebanon's new prime minister-designate begins bid to form long-awaited cabinet

AFP , Tuesday 27 Jul 2021

On Tuesday, Mikati met with top political parties, including the powerful Shia Hezbollah movement and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun

Lebanon
Najib Mikati. AP

Lebanon's new prime minister-designate Najib Mikati started consultations with leading political parties Tuesday with a view to forming a long-awaited government.

The billionaire politician, already twice a prime minister, was designated on Monday, days after Saad Hariri threw in the towel.

The government of Hassan Diab resigned following a deadly port explosion in Beirut last August and efforts to agree on a new lineup have proved fruitless.

The institutional vacuum is holding up a potential financial rescue plan for Lebanon, which defaulted on its debt last year and has since sunk into what the World Bank has described as one of the world's worst crises since the mid-19th century.

On Tuesday, Mikati met with top political parties, including the powerful Shia Hezbollah movement and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun.

Following their meeting, Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad said his party is ready to "seriously cooperate" with the new PM-designate.

"What is required is speedy cabinet formation and cooperation from all parties towards that end," Raad told reporters.

FPM chief Gebran Bassil, accused by critics of repeatedly obstructing efforts to form a new government, said his party has decided "not to participate in the next cabinet, which means we will not get involved in the formation process".

In an interview with the An-Nahar newspaper, Mikati vowed his lineup would be "purely technical" and tasked with bridging the gap to elections due next year.

Several lawmakers, including deputy speaker Elie Ferzli, on Tuesday, backed this push.

"The government will consist of specialists," Ferzli said. "As for the nominating process, it will rest on Mikati and his agreements with the president."

Scepticism

The designation of the 65-year-old Mikati, Lebanon's richest man and to many a symbol of its beleagured oligarchy, was met with general scepticism.

A native of Tripoli, Lebanon's second city and one of its poorest, he was accused by a state prosecutor in 2019 of illicit enrichment, a charge he denies.

On Sunday evening, dozens of protesters gathered outside Mikati's Beirut home, accusing him of corruption and cronyism.

Lebanon's former colonial ruler France and other Western governments stopped short of welcoming Mikati's designation and simply urged him to swiftly deliver a competent lineup.

But Lebanon's bickering politicians view Mikati as a consensus candidate, who may be capable of easing a political deadlock that has stymied efforts towards forming a government.

Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt the job, promised his government would work on implementing a French roadmap conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.

Tuesday's meetings with the parliamentary blocs are the customary official step that follows a new prime minister's designation but the high-stakes horse-trading has yet to begin.

Electricity crisis

In some of his first comments after his designation, Mikati addressed the shortages that have plunged the country into darkness and further crippled its crumbling economy.

Lebanon can no longer provide mains electricity to its citizens for more than a handful of hours a day nor can it afford to buy the fuel needed to power generators.

Almost none of the international community's demands for a broad programme of reforms have so far been met.

Further stalling the bankrupt state's recapitalisation has been the government's failure to engage the International Monetary Fund and discuss a fully-fledged rescue plan.

Until then, the monetary institution is due to send around $900 million as part of its Special Drawing Rights (SDR) aid financing scheme to help Lebanon recover.

Experts have warned however that the amount would not be enough and risked being misused by a ruling class that offers no more guarantees of transparency than before.

According to the Al-Akhbar newspaper, Mikati wants to use the IMF money to build new plants aimed at stabilising Lebanon's power supply.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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