Lebanon’s politicians retreat to the back rooms to plan new government

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Lebanon’s political players swung into traditional backroom manoeuvring on Tuesday to replace the collapsed Hezbollah-aligned government, ignoring street demands for all of them to quit after the Beirut port disaster one week ago.

The government of Hassan Diab resigned on Monday after less than eight months in office following the explosion that killed 171 people and left thousands wounded and homeless.

One name, independent diplomat Nawaf Salam has fleetingly emerged as a replacement for Mr Diab, who headed the most pro-Hezbollah government since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Mr Salam, an international judge who is seen as acceptable to the protest movement, was floated last time as a possible prime minister, He has no base among the country’s powerbrokers and established political groups.

The country has been in economic freefall since the currency collapsed last year and the state defaulted on its debt in March. Bans on dollar withdrawals to halt a run on the banks have exacerbated the popular frustration.

The dire situation of the economy and need for long-term reconstruction and recapitalisation funds is putting some pressure on the traditional elite, who had mostly endorsed or acquiesced to the Diab government.

They might succumb to a compromise that looks at least outwardly different to the political formula of the last decade,

The formula roughly consists of the elite retaining their ‘share of the spoils’ system while Hezbollah and its allies ultimately hold the political power and foreign policy making.

Fireworks thrown at riot police by anti-government protesters explode during clashes near the parliament building following last Tuesday's massive explosion in the seaport which devastated Beirut, Lebanon. AP Photo

Lebanese protesters, enraged by a deadly explosion, clash with security forces at Martyrs' Square in Beirut. Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepped down amid fury within and outside his government over the deadly Beirut port blast he blamed on the incompetence and corruption of a decades-old ruling class. AFP

Lebanese protesters, enraged by a deadly explosion, hurl stones at security forces amid clashes in central Beirut. Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepped down amid fury within and outside his government over the deadly Beirut port blast he blamed on the incompetence and corruption of a decades-old ruling class. AFP

Lebanese anti-government protesters throw stones at security forces at one of the roads leading to the parliament building in Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Lebanese security forces clash with protesters near the parliament building in central Beirut following a huge chemical explosion that devastated large parts of the Lebanese capital. AFP

A demonstrator waves a Lebanese flag during anti-government protests that have been ignited by a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. Reuters

Protesters wave a Lebanese flag during demonstrations near the parliament building in Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

An anti-government protester uses a tennis racket to hit back a tear gas canister towards riot policemen during a protest following last Tuesday's massive explosion, which devastated Beirut, Lebanon. AP Photo

Lebanese security forces clash with protesters near the parliament in central Beirut following a huge chemical explosion that devastated large parts of the Lebanese capital. AFP

A member of Lebanese riot police fires a weapon during anti-government protests that have been ignited by a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. Reuters

Lebanese protesters try to storm the vicinity of the parliament in central Beirut following a huge chemical explosion that devastated large parts of the Lebanese capital. AFP

A demonstrator throws fireworks at riot police during anti-government protests that have been ignited by a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. Reuters

In a surprise move, Alain Aoun, a senior parliamentarian in the Free Patriotic Movement, which sits on top of the largest bloc in parliament, did not rule out Mr Salam, whom his group opposed last time as prime minister.

The Free Patriotic Movement is headed by former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, the brother-in-law of President Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah.

Mr Bassil remains perhaps the most powerful Christian political figure in Lebanon and he is seen as the man pulling the strings in the presidential palace in Baabda.

Mr Aoun told The National that talks have started for the formation of a new cabinet to “fulfill the international community’s requirements for helping Lebanon”.

He emphasised that he didn’t want to refer to anyone as the presumptive nominee but he said: “Of course you know that people are reporting that Nawaf Salam is an option.”

Most of the parliamentarians uncharacteristically went under the radar since representatives of the political class, including Hezbollah, met French President Emmanuel Macron in Beirut on August 5.

Pro-Hezbollah legislator Hagob Baqrodian of the Armenian Tashnak Party told Lebanese radio on Tuesday that his party has not decided whom to back for prime minister.

“The picture has not become clear,” Mr Baqrodian said.

During his trip to Beirut, Mr Macron indicated he has an initiative to shepherd Lebanese politicians into qualifying their dysfunctional state for international aid.

But few expect the French proposals to shake the political system in any way remotely meeting the aspirations of demonstrators and civil figures. The authorities crushed their uprising in January but their cause was revived after the immense official incompetence unmasked by the explosion.

Veteran Lebanese political analyst Youssef Bazzi, speaking to The National, said the French proposal would replicate a so-called national unity government that preceded that of Mr Diab.

Hezbollah and its allies held significant power in that government, headed by Saad Al Hariri and which included Mr Bassil.

Mr Hariri resigned in response to street demands in October 2019. Mr Bazzi said a main condition for Mr Hariri to return as premier this time would be the exclusion of Mr Bassil.

Ever the flexible political operator, Mr Bassil is indicating that he is favouring another proposal, apparently backed by the United States, for a more neutral government headed by Mr Salam.

“This way neither Mr Hariri and neither Mr Bassil are in government,” Mr Bazzi said, adding that the outcome will likely be another compromise that fails to produce any real reform.

The civil movement is advocating a new order that breaks with decades of politico-financial corruption and a breakdown in the rule of law since Lebanon’s Second Republic was established in 1990.

Al Bayan Al Watani, a cross-sectarian group of civil figures, said that after the explosion, the removal of the political class “was not enough”.

The group said the Lebanese leaders should be boycotted internationally and blacklisted and their assets confiscated "in favour of the victims of their tyranny, which have become countless after the crime in Beirut", referring to the explosion and its victims.

Updated: August 11, 2020 09:03 PM

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