French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday that PM-designate Saad Hariri’s resignation was proof that “Lebanese officials are unable to find a way out of the crisis,” accusing them of “cynical self-destruction.”
A spokesman for the U.N. meanwhile described the development as regrettable, reiterating calls for a government capable of addressing the country’s “numerous challenges” to be put together rapidly.
International donors remain adamant that a government must be established before they can open credit lines, but political squabbling among Lebanese factions has repeatedly stymied those efforts, amid soaring poverty rates.
Hariri’s announcement — nearly a year after a deadly explosion at Beirut port forced the last government to resign — takes the political process back to square one. There is a clear risk of many more months of drift.
President Michel Aoun will now have to call on parliament to pick a new premier-designate, who will be tasked with assembling another cabinet which in turn will have to be approved by the president and political factions.
Hariri’s decision followed a meeting with Aoun over his draft cabinet lineup.
“There were amendments requested by the president, which I considered substantial,” Hariri told reporters after the meeting.
“It is clear that… we will not be able to agree,” he added, noting that the president had expressed the same opinion.
– Sporadic protests –
Aoun’s office hit back, saying that Hariri “was not ready to discuss amendments of any kind… (leaving) the door to discussion… closed.”
Hariri has previously repeatedly accused Aoun of hampering the process by insisting on a cabinet share that would effectively give his team a decision-making veto.
The president’s team, for its part, claims that it is only seeking a balanced distribution of ministerial seats.
The premier-designate’s exit leaves Lebanon rudderless amid a deepening economic crisis that the World Bank has branded as one of the planet’s worst since the mid-19th century.
The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the dollar at 1,500, plummeted to a new record low beyond 20,000 on the black market after Hariri’s announcement, prompting renewed street protests and road closures in a country that is struggling to fund basic imports such as fuel and medicines.
A few dozen protesters clashed with soldiers who fired rubber bullets to try to clear roads near a major sports stadium in Beirut, an AFP correspondent said.
The Lebanese Red Cross, which dispatched three ambulances to the area, said people were wounded, but did not specify how many.
Protests also engulfed other parts of the country as the highway linking Beirut to the South was blocked in several locations.
Hariri had been nominated prime minister designate in October 2020, following a devastating explosion at Beirut port in August caused by unsafely stored fertilizer that killed more than 200 people.
– Sectarian cleavage –
He is the second candidate to fail at forming a government in less than 12 months.
With cabinet berths and parliamentary seats distributed according to religious sects, Hariri’s exit will further complicate negotiations, as he is widely seen as the pivotal representative of the country’s Sunni Muslims.
For months, Hariri and Aoun have traded blame for delays in establishing a government.
The international community has pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid since last year’s port blast, but made the money conditional on installing a government capable of tackling corruption.
Hariri, who has previously led three governments in Lebanon, replaced as premier designate Mustafa Adib, a relatively unknown diplomat.
Adib had been nominated in late August but threw in the towel nearly a month later, because of resistance from factions over his proposed line-up.
Hariri’s decision came as Lebanon prepares to mark the first anniversary of the August 4 explosion — its worst peace-time tragedy — which many blame on negligence by political leaders.
While the port disaster forced the last government, led by outgoing prime minister Hassan Diab, to resign, he and his cabinet have lingered on in a caretaker capacity.
Nabil Bou Monsef, a political commentator in An-Nahar newspaper, said that naming a new prime minister would now be even more difficult.
“We may not be able to form a government or find an alternative to Saad Hariri,” he said. “President Michel Aoun will now consider himself victorious in getting rid of Saad Hariri. But in reality, (Aoun) has opened the gates of hell for the whole country and his rule.”
The 51-year-old Hariri has served as prime minister twice, the first time from 2009-2011. His second time came in 2016, in an uneasy partnership with Aoun, an ally of Hizbullah, which is backed by Iran. At the time, Hariri had backed Aoun for president, ending nearly two years for Lebanon without a head of state, while he stepped in as premier.
In 2017, in a reflection of a feud between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran, Hariri suddenly resigned in a televised address from Riyadh and accused Hizbullah of taking Lebanon hostage. The move was seen as forced on Hariri by the Saudis, and he was quickly restored to power, but it signaled the end of his traditional alliance with the Sunni regional powerhouse.
Then, in October 2019, Hariri resigned, bowing to nationwide protests demanding major reforms. A year later, parliament named him once again to the post, months after the government of Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of the massive Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port. More than 200 people died in the blast that defaced the city and injured thousands, compounding Lebanon’s woes. An investigation continues into what caused it.