WASHINGTON — The United States said Thursday’s resignation of Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s prime minister-designate was “disappointing.”
“It is critical that a government committed and able to implement priority reforms be formed now,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after Hariri abandoned his efforts to form a government nine months after accepting the challenge.
The country is deep in crisis and international donors remain adamant that a government must be established before they can provide funding.
But political squabbling has repeatedly stymied such efforts and sent the currency to unprecedented lows that leave imported medicine and fuel increasingly unaffordable.
“Lebanon’s political class has squandered the last nine months,” Blinken said in a statement. “The Lebanese economy is in free-fall and the current government is not providing basic services in a reliable fashion.”
“Leaders in Beirut must urgently put aside partisan differences and form a government that serves the Lebanese people.”
Lebanon’s national currency, in freefall since the crisis erupted in late 2019, has plunged to a new low, selling for more than 20,000 to the dollar on the black market. The Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for 30 years, has lost more than 90% of its value.
In a last-ditch effort to end the deadlock, Hariri had proposed a 24-member Cabinet to Aoun on Wednesday, and said he expected a response from the president by Thursday.
After Hariri stepped down, Aoun said that the premier-designate had rejected the idea of changing any names on the proposed list, indicating he already planned to step down and “was finding a pretext to justify his decision.”
It is unclear who could replace Hariri, one of Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni Muslim leaders. According to Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system, the prime minister is picked from the ranks of Sunnis.
International calls have mounted for Lebanese leaders to form a new government. In an unusual move, the French and US ambassadors to Beirut recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to discuss Lebanon with Saudi officials. The two said Lebanon is in “desperate need” of a new, pro-reform government to lead it out of its economic and financial crisis.
But for months, the effort has been blocked by a power struggle between Hariri on one side and Aoun and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, on the other.
They locked horns over the shape of the cabinet that will oversee critical reforms and elections scheduled for next year. Each side blamed the other for the deadlock, which has paralyzed Lebanon even as the economic meltdown accelerated, poverty deepened and inflation soared.
The 51-year-old Hariri has served as prime minister twice before, the first time from 2009-2011. His second time came in 2016, in an uneasy partnership with Aoun, an ally of the Shiite terror group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. At the time, Hariri had backed Aoun for president, ending nearly two years for Lebanon without a head of state, while he stepped in as premier.
Also, in 2017, in a reflection of a feud between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran, Hariri suddenly resigned in a televised address from Riyadh and accused Hezbollah of taking Lebanon hostage. The move was seen as forced on Hariri by the Saudis, and he was quickly restored but it signaled the end of his traditional alliance with the Sunni regional powerhouse.
Then, in October 2019, Hariri resigned, bowing to nationwide protests demanding major reforms. A year later, he was named once again to the post by parliament, months after the government of Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of the massive Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port. More than 200 people died in the blast that defaced the city and injured thousands, compounding Lebanon’s woes. An investigation continues into what caused it.