Lebanon’s new PM-designate says ‘no magic wand’ to fix crisis

Najib Mikati warns country ‘on the verge of collapse’ amid economic meltdown; France calls for government able to make ‘indispensable reforms’

Lebanese prime minister-designate Najib Mikati speaks to journalists after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, on July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Lebanese prime minister-designate Najib Mikati speaks to journalists after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, on July 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s newly appointed Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati on Monday urged unity to begin recovery from a devastating economic and financial meltdown roiling the country. He said he will strive to form a new government but the situation is too dire to overcome with the usual fractious politics.

Mikati spoke to reporters shortly after he was appointed to the post by President Michel Aoun, after Saad Hariri earlier this month gave up his months-long attempts to form a cabinet.

“Alone, I don’t have a magic wand and cannot achieve miracles,” Mikati said. “We are in very difficult situation… it is a difficult mission that can only succeed if we all work together.”

It is not clear whether Mikati — widely considered to be part 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.

A new cabinet faces the monumental task of undertaking critically needed reforms, as well as resuming talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package. The new cabinet is also expected to oversee general elections scheduled for next year.

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, including the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group and the other major Shiite faction, Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. 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 the powers of the president and prime minister, has worsened a crippling economic and financial crisis.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with Saad Hariri at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, July 14, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

Mikati faces Christian opposition, including from Aoun’s own bloc, now led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. Bassil, who heads the largest Christian bloc in parliament, did not name anyone as a candidate for prime minister during Monday’s binding consultations between the president and members of parliament. He said he is ready to work with Mikati to facilitate formation of a new cabinet.

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 percent of its value to the dollar, driving hyperinflation.

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. Hariri was appointed next and stepped down after 10 months.

“We were on the verge of collapse, but when you see there’s a fire in front of you and you see it spreading every day… I decided, after relying on God, to take this step and try to limit the fire’s spread,” the tall, soft-spoken Mikati said.

International calls have mounted for Lebanese leaders to form a new government, but 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.

A drone picture shows the destruction after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, on August 5, 2020. (AP/ 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. Corruption charges were brought against him by a judge in 2019 in a case involving accusations of illicit gains related to subsidized housing loans — charges that he dismissed as politically motivated. The case never went to trial.

Mikati is supported by France, the former colonial power in Lebanon, and also the United States. On Monday, he said among his priorities would be implementation of a French initiative, which includes a roadmap and a timetable for reforms.

France’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that forming a government able to put “indispensable reforms” in place is urgent. “France calls on all Lebanese leaders to act on this as quickly as possible,” ministry spokesperson Agnes Von der Muhll said.

France plans to hold a second international conference to raise funds for the Lebanese people on August 4.

Mikati said he has been studying the situation for a while and received the “necessary guarantees” from the international community, “otherwise I wouldn’t have taken this step.”

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