Lebanon’s new PM vows technocratic government as protests against him spread
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Lebanon’s new PM vows technocratic government as protests against him spread

For second day, security forces clash in Beirut with supporters of ex-premier Hariri over appointment of Hezbollah-backed Hassan Diab

Supporters of outgoing Lebanese premier Saad Hariri clash with army soldiers during a protest in Beirut's Corniche al-Mazraa neighborhood on December 20, 2019. (AFP)
Supporters of outgoing Lebanese premier Saad Hariri clash with army soldiers during a protest in Beirut's Corniche al-Mazraa neighborhood on December 20, 2019. (AFP)

BEIRUT — Lebanese prime minister-designate Hassan Diab said Friday he wants to form a government of independent technocrats that can tackle the spiraling economic crisis as protests against his nomination spread.

Speaking as visiting US envoy David Hale called for reforms, the Hezbollah-backed premier vowed to form an inclusive cabinet that would secure much-needed foreign aid.

Diab, a little-known 60-year-old engineering professor, was designated on Thursday with the endorsement of Shiite terror group Hezbollah and its allies but without the backing of Lebanon’s main Sunni bloc.

The nomination of the independent former education minister and self-professed “technocrat” ended nearly two months of wrangling among lawmakers.

Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab gives a statement following his meeting with outgoing premier Saad Hariri in Beirut on December 20, 2019. (AFP)

But it fueled anger among Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, who said the prime minister-designate did not enjoy the community’s backing for a post reserved for a Sunni by a power-sharing system in force since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The Sunni community’s objections to Diab’s nomination fly in the face of the non-sectarian ethos of the two-month-old protest movement, which has demanded an end to the communal power-sharing system it blames for entrenching cronyism and incompetence.

Supporters of outgoing Lebanese premier Saad Hariri try to block a road with a truckload of dirt during a protest in Beirut’s Corniche al-Mazraa neighborhood on December 20, 2019. (AFP)

For a second straight day, security forces in the capital scuffled with crowds of young men — mainly supporters of former prime minister Saad Hariri — trying to block roads in a Sunni district to condemn Diab’s designation.

In the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, schools were closed and Diab opponents blocked roads, calling for a general strike, an AFP correspondent reported.

The unrest prompted Hariri to call on his supporters to refrain from taking to the streets, in the second such appeal in two days.

Technocrat government

Diab on Friday met Hariri and other Sunni political figures who did not endorse his nomination the previous day.

Following the meeting with Hariri, Diab said he wants to form “a government of independent technocrats” — a key demand of protesters.

“Hariri is giving his full support to the formation of this government,” said Diab, who is also a vice president at Lebanon’s prestigious American University of Beirut.

Hariri had been tipped in recent days to return to his job, seven weeks after an unprecedented wave of protests condemning corruption and sectarianism forced him out.

But the 49-year-old two-time premier bowed out on Wednesday, claiming that his political rivals were opposed to a technocrat-dominated government that he planned to form.

A Lebanese man fixes a poster bearing the picture of outgoing premier Saad Hariri as his supporters block a road in the Qasqas neighborhood of the capital Beirut, December 19, 2019. (Stringer/AFP)

On Thursday, his party stopped short of throwing its weight behind Diab, raising fears that a government lacking the support of all of Lebanon’s factions could struggle to secure desperately needed foreign support to rescue an economy teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

But in an interview with Deutsche Welle aired on Friday, Diab said that he expected “full support from Europe and the US.”

A Hezbollah supporter waves the terror group’s flag as he stands in front of Lebanese army soldiers after a clash erupted between anti-government protesters and the group, in Beirut, Lebanon, November 25, 2019. (AP/Hussein Malla)

He rejected suggestions that the support his nomination received from Hezbollah, which is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Washington, would hinder the disbursement of much-needed Western aid.

“Everyone is willing to cooperate so that Lebanon can have an exceptional government that is not like its predecessors in the number of technocrats and women included,” he said.

“I think the Americans, when such a government is formed, will lend support because it is a government that aims to rescue Lebanon.”

US visit

The international community which has been pressuring Lebanon to accelerate the formation of a new government, has yet to respond publicly to Diab’s nomination.

Hale, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Friday that Washington has “no role in saying who should lead and who should comprise” the next cabinet.

Picking a new premier was only the first step and agreeing on a full cabinet line-up could take time, with Diab himself giving a timeframe of four to six weeks.

Diab is scheduled to begin consultations on Saturday.

David Hale, US undersecretary of state for political affairs, meets with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (R) in Beirut on December 20, 2019. (Anwar Amro/AFP)

Following a meeting with President Michel Aoun, the former US ambassador to Lebanon urged authorities to “act in the national interest, advancing reforms and forming a government that is committed to undertaking those reforms.”

Hale later met with parliament speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri.

While the huge crowds that filled the squares of Beirut and other Lebanese cities two months ago have dwindled, the protest movement has remained vibrant.

Tensions have been heightened by the looming bankruptcy of the debt-burdened Lebanese state.

The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the US dollar, has lost around 30 percent of its value on the black market, while companies have been paying half-salaries for the past two months and laying off staff.

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