Lebanon’s Hariri to form government, but path tough
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Lebanon’s Hariri to form government, but path tough

Hopes the influential Sunni leader can tackle economic, political challenges likely to be stymied due to differences with Hezbollah

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri waves to his supporters after casting his ballot during municipal elections, outside a voting station in Beirut, Lebanon, May 8, 2016. (AP/Hussein Malla)
Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri waves to his supporters after casting his ballot during municipal elections, outside a voting station in Beirut, Lebanon, May 8, 2016. (AP/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AFP) — Former prime minister Saad Hariri was nominated Thursday to form Lebanon’s next government but the process is likely to be hampered by deep differences with the powerful Hezbollah movement.

Hariri’s nomination and the election of a president after a vacuum of more than two years have raised hopes that Lebanon can begin tackling challenges including a stagnant economy, a moribund political class and the influx of over a million Syrian refugees.

It is also something of a comeback for Hariri, a Western-backed Sunni politician who had been left in the political cold in recent years.

Experts have cautioned that Hariri may be hamstrung from the start because of ongoing divisions in the country’s complex political scene.

Hariri is a fierce opponent of Lebanon’s influential Shiite Hezbollah movement, and has sharply criticized its role in bolstering Syria’s government against an uprising.

But he was forced to throw his support behind their candidate for the presidency, Michel Aoun, in order to secure his return to power as prime minister.

In a sign that the task ahead will not be easy, Hezbollah’s MPs declined to endorse Hariri for the prime minister’s post, even though his nomination was all but assured.

A worker hangs a billboard showing Christian leader Michel Aoun with Arabic that reads "For all Lebanon," in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Sunday, October 30, 2016. for President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)
A worker hangs a billboard showing Christian leader Michel Aoun with Arabic that reads “For all Lebanon,” in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon on October 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

Analysts said Hariri, who has seen his family fortune decline along with his influence in Lebanon’s Sunni community, will have little leverage in the formation of his cabinet.

“Hariri is in a tough position,” said Hilal Khashan, head of the political science department at the American University in Beirut.

“Given the economic straits he is experiencing and his declining popularity, he was determined to become prime minister, and will therefore be obliged to make concessions to preserve his interests,” he told AFP.

Months of horsetrading

Hariri, 46, served as prime minister under former president Michel Sleiman between 2009 and 2011, heading a unity government that was brought down by Hezbollah and its allies.

In his new term, he is likely to struggle with his government’s policy statement, which will have to make reference to Israel, as well as the war in Syria, both potential flashpoints with Hezbollah.

The powerful militant group has rejected attempts to disarm it, saying it serves as the “resistance” against Israel, with which Lebanon technically remains at war.

And it has also rejected criticism of its involvement in the war in Syria, saying its forces are protecting Lebanon by fighting extremists next door.

Hariri has long opposed Hezbollah, members of which have been accused by an international court of involvement in his father’s 2005 assassination.

He also led calls for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, some 30 years after their arrival, following his father’s murder.

Members and supporters of Lebanon's Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah carry the coffin of Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander who was killed in an attack in Syria, during his funeral in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO)
Members and supporters of Lebanon’s Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah carry the coffin of Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah commander who was killed in an attack in Syria, during his funeral in the Ghobeiry neighborhood of southern Beirut on May 13, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO)

The process of forming a government could take months, with horsetrading likely to revolve around the distribution of key posts like the interior, defense and energy ministries.

“Traditionally the formation of government in Lebanon takes a long time, up to 10 months sometimes,” said Khashan.

“Today there are differences between the various political currents on the issue of the key ministries,” he added.

Despite the uphill battle ahead, Lebanese are hoping the breakthrough in their country’s lengthy political stalemate will revitalize the economy and solve problems like a trash collection crisis.

The country is also still reeling from the effects of the arrival of more than a million Syrian refugees, who have tested the limited resources of a nation with just four million citizens.

Khashan cautioned that Lebanon would remain fragile, but central bank governor Riad Salameh sounded a note of optimism at a conference in Beirut on Thursday.

“The election of Michel Aoun should lead to the normal activity of the constitutional institutions, thus increasing confidence in economy,” he said.

“The formation of a government will help in attracting foreign aid and mitigating the cost of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which we estimate at five percent of GDP,” he added.

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