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Amid deep crises, Hezbollah-backed billionaire tapped as Lebanese PM-designate

Facing unprecedented financial meltdown, lawmakers vote to appoint former premier Najib Mikati to position vacated by Saad Hariri after he failed to form a government

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, July 26, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, July 26, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

BEIRUT , Lebanon — Lebanese lawmakers voted Monday to designate billionaire businessman Najib Mikati as prime minister, tasked with forming a government and ending a year-long political impasse that has aggravated the country’s financial crisis.

Mikati, a two-time premier who was last in power in 2014, clinched a clear majority of 72 votes from lawmakers who sat for consultations with President Michel Aoun on Monday.

One of the richest men in Lebanon, Mikati became a favorite for the post after he was endorsed by most of Lebanon’s political parties and also the powerful, Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group. Mikati was also endorsed by former Sunni prime ministers including Hariri, who abandoned efforts to form a government after failing to agree with Aoun on the Cabinet’s makeup.

The political deadlock, driven by a power struggle between Aoun and Hariri over constitutional rights and powers of the president and prime minister, has worsened a crippling economic and financial crisis.

It is not clear whether Mikati — widely considered an extension of the political class that brought the country to bankruptcy — would be able to break the year-long impasse over the formation of a new government. He faces Christian opposition, including from Aoun’s own political party, now led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil.

Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis began in late 2019 and has steadily worsened since then. Poverty has soared in the past several months as the situation spirals out of control, with dire shortages of medicines, fuel and electricity. The currency has lost around 90% of its value to the dollar, driving hyperinflation.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum)

Mikati’s designation would be the third so far since the current caretaker government headed by Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of the massive explosion at Beirut’s port last August. Since then, Diab’s Cabinet has acted only in a caretaker capacity, compounding Lebanon’s paralysis further.

The first to try to form a government was Lebanon’s former ambassador to Germany, Mustafa Adib, who resigned last September, nearly a month after being designated prime minister. Saad Hariri was appointed next and stepped down last week after 10 months.

Any new government faces the monumental task of undertaking desperately needed reforms as well as resuming talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package. The international community has refused to help Lebanon financially before wide reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement.

The investigation into the August 4 port explosion — triggered by the detonation of hundreds of thousands of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate — has exacerbated tensions in the small nation amid accusations of political meddling in the judiciary’s work. More than 200 people were killed and thousands injured in the blast, which defaced parts of the city.

Smoke rises after an explosion the day before at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Mikati, a Sunni billionaire from the northern city of Tripoli, served as prime minister in 2005 and from 2011 to 2013, when he resigned at the height of the Syrian war after a two-year stint in a government dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.

He founded the telecommunications company Investcom with his brother Taha in the 1980s and sold it in 2006 to South Africa’s MTN Group for $5.5 billion.

Mikati is supported by France, the former colonial power in Lebanon, and also the United States.

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