Former ambassador Charbel Wehbe was on Monday appointed as Lebanon’s new foreign minister, replacing Nassif Hitti who resigned earlier in the day.
“President (Michel) Aoun and Prime Minister Hassan Diab have signed a decree accepting the resignation of Minister Nassif Hitti and a decree naming (ex-)ambassador Charbel Wehbe as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants,” the Presidency said.
The announcement followed a meeting between Aoun and Diab at the Baabda Palace.
According to Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Hani Chemaitelli, who spoke to reporters on Monday, Wehbe had been nominated for the post during the negotiations to form the current government.
Wehbe had served as acting secretary-general of the ministry during Jebran Bassil’s tenure. Following his retirement as a diplomat, he moved to the presidential palace where he served as President Aoun’s diplomatic affairs adviser.
Hitti resigned in protest at the government’s handling of the spiraling economic crisis, warning that if there is no will to reform “the ship will sink.”
He charged that the government has shown no will to initiate changes demanded by the International Monetary Fund.
“I participated in the government under the logic of serving one boss, which is Lebanon,” the 67-year-old veteran diplomat added. “But I found that in my country there are many bosses and contradictory interests.
“If they don’t unite in the interest of the Lebanese people … then the ship, God forbid, will sink with everyone on board,” he added, warning that Lebanon risked becoming a “failed state.”
Hitti’s resignation comes after France’s top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian during a visit last month scolded Lebanon’s leadership for failing to take the necessary measures to save the country from collapse.
The outgoing Lebanese foreign minister too called on government officials to “reconsider many of their policies and practices so that the nation and its citizens are given priority over all other considerations.”
The government, which defaulted on its sovereign debt for the first time in March, has pledged an ambitious raft of reforms and two months ago entered into talks with the IMF.
However, the negotiations have stalled, with two top members of the government’s own team resigning, allegedly in frustration at the administration’s lack of commitment to reform.
The government says it needs more than $20 billion in external funding, which includes $11 billion pledged by donors at a Paris conference in 2018 that was never delivered over lack of reforms.
Hitti’s resignation shows “that Lebanon is in a state of total confusion,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut.
“This government of so-called technocrats has to always refer back to those who put it in office before it can act on any matter,” he said, meaning that it “is not autonomous.”
Hitti started his career at the Arab League, where he worked in the office of the then secretary general and later headed the mission in Paris.
Local Lebanese media cited several reasons for his resignation, including reports that he was displeased with the way Lebanese officials were encroaching on his prerogatives and mishandling diplomatic ties.
Hitti was reportedly sidelined from a meeting between Le Drian, Diab and several cabinet ministers and was displeased with the manner in which the premier handled the official visit.
General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim also visited a number of Gulf countries last month in a diplomatic mission usually reserved for the foreign minister.