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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - BEIRUT — Lebanese academic and former minister Hassan Diab received the backing of Shiite group Hezbollah and looked set Thursday to be named the crisis-wracked country's new prime minister.
Caretaker premier Saad Al-Hariri pulled out of the race on Wednesday and his bloc did not nominate any candidate when much-delayed consultations to form a new government got under way at the presidential palace.
The nomination of Diab would yield a lopsided government that observers warn could fuel sectarian tensions on the streets and complicate efforts to secure international aid needed to pull Lebanon back from the brink of default.
Hariri resigned seven weeks ago under pressure from an unprecedented wave of protests demanding a complete overhaul of the political system, leaving the country without a government to tackle its worst ever economic crisis.
Diab, a professor at the American University of Beirut and a former education minister, was endorsed by Hezbollah, which with its allies holds a majority in parliament.
President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, launched the twice delayed official talks to designate a new prime minister on Thursday, meeting with all parliamentary blocs.
The talks were opened with a meeting between Aoun and Hariri, whose Future Movement did not nominate a candidate and is now expected to be excluded from the next government.
The 49-year-old prominent Sunni leader had in recent days been seen as the most likely choice to head a technocrat-dominated government, but he announced late Wednesday he was pulling out.
"God bless everyone," Hariri said after the meeting.
Lebanon has been ruled by the same political clans and families since the 1975-1990 civil war and protesters have pushed for a technocratic government.
Demonstrators of all sectarian backgrounds have been in the streets every day since Oct. 17 to demand the removal of the entire political leadership, seen as corrupt and incompetent.
"I have strived to meet their demand for a government of experts, which I saw as the only option to address the serious social and economic crisis our country faces," Hariri said in a statement.
But, he added, staunch opposition to his plan for a technocratic government forced him to bow out.
More than five hours into the consultations, Diab had earned more nominations than the only other contender, International Criminal Court Judge Nawaf Salam, and looked on course to succeed Hariri.
A career academic, he held the education portfolio from 2011 to 2014 in a government formed after Hezbollah brought down a previous Hariri Cabinet.
The power-sharing system that was enshrined after the end of the civil war means that the prime minister's position should be filled by a member of the Sunni Muslim community.
As the leading Sunni representative, the premier is usually backed by the community's main leaders.
But Lebanon's heavyweight Sunni politicians stopped short of backing Diab, raising fears that the next government will be polarized and unable to tackle urgent reforms demanded by protesters and the international community.
Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said the expected appointment of Diab will only "deepen" Lebanon's crisis.
"If Diab is appointed as premier, then the coming government will be dominated by Hezbollah (and its allies) without political cover from Hariri and the Sunnis," he said.
"This will drive Lebanon toward a Sunni-Shiite schism and drown the revolution in sectarian discourse," he said.
Diab describes himself on his website as "one of the rare technocrat ministers since Lebanon's independence".
It remains to be seen how protesters will react to Diab, who is not politically affiliated and largely unknown among the public.
Three days after the start of the anti-government protests, he called them a "historic and awe-inspiring scene".
"The Lebanese people have united to defend their rights to a free and dignified life," he wrote on Twitter.
While the huge crowds that filled the squares of Beirut and other Lebanese cities two months ago have dwindled, the protest movement is still alive and keeping politicians in check.
Tensions have been further heightened by the looming bankruptcy of the debt-ridden Lebanese state.
A government dominated by Hezbollah, which has been targeted by increasingly biting US sanctions, is unlikely to secure billions of dollars in frozen aid.
The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the US dollar, has lost around 30 percent of its value on the black market, while companies have been paying half-salaries over the past two months as well as laying off employees. — AFP
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