Lebanon Delays Talks on New Prime Minister Amid Divisions

December 17, 2019 Updated: December 17, 2019
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BEIRUT—Lebanon’s president has postponed talks on naming a new prime minister after the only candidate—caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri—failed to win the backing of the country’s largest Christian groups amid a worsening economic and financial crisis.

The postponement followed a violent weekend in the tiny Mediterranean nation that saw the toughest crackdown on demonstrations in two months.

Lebanese security forces repeatedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse hundreds of protesters in downtown Beirut in the worst violence since demonstrations against the political elite erupted in mid-October.

President Michel Aoun was to meet with the heads of parliamentary blocs to discuss the naming of the new prime minister. Those consultations are binding according to the constitution, and Hariri, who resigned under pressure on Oct. 29, was widely expected to be renamed.

The presidential palace said the consultations would occur instead on Dec. 19, based on a request from Hariri. Aoun similarly postponed talks with the heads of parliamentary blocs last week amid deep divisions among the various factions.

U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis had warned that because of the collapsing economy, such postponements were “a risky hazard both for the politicians but even more so” for the people.

Lebanon is enduring its worst economic and financial crisis in decades with massive debt, widespread layoffs, and unprecedented capital control imposed by local banks amid a shortage in liquidity.

Hariri resigned after protests began in October over widespread corruption and mismanagement. The palace said Hariri had asked Aoun to allow for more time for discussions among political groups before official consultations.

Earlier, the country’s main Christian groups said they refused to back Hariri, who has served as premier three times. The Lebanese Forces Party, with 15 seats in the 128-member parliament, said it won’t name anyone, while the Kataeb Party said it will propose former U.N. Ambassador Nawaf Salam for the post.

Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and allied parties, which have the largest bloc in the legislature, also weren’t likely to name Hariri amid sharp divisions between Hariri and the party’s chief, outgoing Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Hariri apparently is trying anew to persuade Christian parties to back him.

His office said in a statement that he’s keen for national accord, adding that had he been named to the post, it would have been “without the participation of any of the large Christian blocs.”

Under Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the parliament speaker from the Shiite community. While Hariri has emerged as the only candidate with enough backing for the job, he’s rejected by protesters who demand a Cabinet of independent technocrats and an independent head of government not affiliated with existing parties.

After hours of clashes, the army was deployed around central Beirut, putting an end to street battles. Dozens of people were injured, most of them only slightly hurt.

Hariri had asked the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for help developing a reform plan to address the economic crisis.

Moody’s Investors Service said that without technical support from the IMF, World Bank, and international donors, it’s increasingly likely that Lebanon could see “a scenario of extreme macroeconomic instability in which a debt restructuring occurs with an abrupt destabilization of the currency peg resulting in very large losses for private investors.”