Lebanon’s parliament has given veteran prime minister Saad Hariri, who resigned last year after nationwide protests against misrule and corruption, the task of forming the struggling country’s next government.
The political insider, whose father Rafic Hariri was Lebanon’s first post-civil war prime minister, is returning to the post for a third time in a blow to protesters tired of the political elite and hoping for change.
Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis since a 15-year civil war ended in 1990. It has been led by a transitional government since prime minister Hassan Diab stood down in August in the wake of one of the biggest explosions in modern history. Some 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate blew up in Beirut’s port, killing nearly 200 people.
Mr Hariri secured the parliamentary nomination with 65 out of a potential 120 votes and will now try to form a government. Speaking after Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, announced his nomination, Mr Hariri promised to quickly form a cabinet dominated by technical experts, calling it “the last and only opportunity for our beloved country”.
With a falling currency, inflation is set to hit 145 per cent by the end of the year, and half of the Lebanese population estimated to have fallen under the poverty line, a new government is urgently needed to negotiate a bailout with the IMF. It will also need to win the confidence of donor countries, which have made aid conditional on reforms to curb government spending and stop corruption.
Mr Hariri’s nomination is a blow for the youthful protesters who had called for the dismantling of Lebanon’s postwar political class, widely accused of cronyism and corruption. For demonstrators, Mr Hariri is “seen as part of the establishment,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, an analyst and fellow at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.
It typically takes months to form a coalition in Lebanon, which relies on a sectarian power sharing system that dates to the end of the civil war. The role of prime minister is reserved for Sunni Muslims and Mr Hariri was seen as one of the few candidates able to pull together a government.
Although Mr Hariri is “not seen as a clean hand in Lebanese politics . . . at the end of the day he has a parliamentary bloc, he has also the ability of negotiating with the other partners and negotiating certain reforms,” said Mr Hage Ali.
Ultimately, Mr Hariri is unlikely to threaten Lebanon’s political class, said Charbel Nahas, a former minister and veteran opposition politician. For them, Mr Hariri’s “main strength is his weakness,” said Mr Nahas, who criticised the nomination: “I don’t know if anywhere something like [this] happened. Having a huge financial collapse and one year later the same guy coming back.”
Mr Hariri is the second person to attempt to form a new government since the blast. Mustapha Adib gave up last month after political infighting stalled his efforts to nominate a cabinet.
France, which ruled Lebanon for 20 years as a mandate before the country gained independence in 1943, has led calls for reform since the blast. French president Emmanuel Macron has visited Beirut twice since the explosion and called for a “new political pact”.
Mr Hariri has disappointed the international community before — failure to enact reforms meant that Lebanon could not access some $11bn of soft loans pledged in 2018 by countries including France and Britain. But he is now seen as the best chance of forming a new government quickly.
While it is unlikely “the French initiative in the beginning envisaged [Mr] Hariri as a prime minister, given that he’s part of the establishment,” said Mr Hage Ali, pragmatism may have changed this calculation.
Formerly supported by Lebanon’s allies in the Gulf, Mr Hariri first served as prime minister from 2009 to 2011, and again from 2016 until he stepped down last year. He temporarily resigned in November 2017, under pressure from Saudi Arabia during a visit to Riyadh.
The kingdom was frustrated by Iran’s growing influence inside Lebanon, and is still thought to withhold its backing for Mr Hariri. Mr Hariri’s former political ally Hizbollah, the Iran-backed political and paramilitary group, declined to name a candidate for prime minister on Thursday.
Mr Nahas argued that Beirut’s political elite may be banking on Mr Hariri’s historically good relations with Paris. “The only reasoning [for bringing him back] is . . . that this is the price to pay in order to get some foreign assistance,” said Mr Nahas.