France announces aid conference for Lebanon as Hariri declines bid to form government

Lebanon faced further woes on Friday after Prime Minister candidate Saad Hariri’s failure to form a government, and as France prepares to host an aid conference on the first anniversary of the country’s port blast.

Hariri’s departure on Thursday comes amid a financial downturn labeled by the World Bank as one of the worst since the mid-19th century.

His departure leaves the country rudderless as Lebanon faces rising poverty, a plummeting currency, renewed street protests and shortages of basic commodities from medicine to fuel.

As a sign of things to come, Health Minister Hamad Hassan said Friday that the government would cut subsidies on drugs costing less than 12,000 Lebanese pounds ($8 at the official rate) to replenish foreign exchange reserves.

“Lebanon, moving towards greater danger,” read a headline on the front page of the Annahar newspaper on Friday.

“Now that Hariri is out, a worsening crisis is inevitable,” says the French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour in Lebanon.

Former colonial power France, which has spearheaded international efforts to lift Lebanon out of the crisis, said Friday it would host an aid conference on Aug. 4.

This coincides with the first anniversary of a massive explosion in the port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people and razed parts of the capital.

The conference, organized with the United Nations, aims to “respond to the needs of the Lebanese, whose situation is deteriorating every day,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

World powers have pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid since last year’s port explosion, but have made the money contingent on installing a government capable of tackling corruption.

Even as international pressure mounted and the European Union threatened sanctions against Lebanese leaders, political bickering has repeatedly thwarted attempts to form a government.

The French foreign ministry said Hariri’s failure to form a government “confirms the political deadlock that Lebanese leaders have deliberately continued for months, even as Lebanon plunges into an unprecedented economic and social crisis”.

political tug-of-war

After nine months of consultations with President Michel Aoun about a cabinet formation, Hariri threw in the towel on Thursday.

He accused Aoun of seeking a stake in the government that would give his supporters a “blocking third” of seats — effectively a veto — a charge the president has denied.

“Had I formed the government Michel Aoun wanted…I wouldn’t have been able to run the country because this is not a cabinet I can work with,” Hariri told Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed TV after he stepped down.

Aoun will now have to call on parliament to elect a new prime minister candidate, who will be tasked with assembling another cabinet, which in turn must be approved by the president and political factions.

This brings the political process back to square one. Lebanese media has warned of many more months of drift, a delay the country cannot afford.

With cabinet berths and parliamentary seats divided according to confessional quotas, negotiations will be further complicated by the departure of Hariri, widely seen as the central representative of the country’s Sunni Muslims.

Media reports have circulated the name of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who last came to power in 2014, as a likely favorite to replace Hariri.

Al-Akhbar newspaper reported Friday that Mikati, a fellow Sunni Muslim, is “the most likely option”.

But Hariri has already said he would not support Mikati’s candidacy.

‘Self destruction’

Hariri, who previously led three governments in Lebanon, is the second candidate to fail to form a government in less than a year.

He had been named prime minister candidate in October 2020 to replace Mustapha Adib, a relatively unknown diplomat.

Adib was nominated just weeks after the port explosion, but dropped out less than a month later due to resistance to his proposed lineup.

Outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who resigned in the wake of the August 4 explosion, has remained in the caretaker capacity until political leaders can agree on a new prime minister.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that Lebanon’s “political class has wasted the past nine months”.

Top French diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian accused political leaders of “cynical self-destruction”.

The Lebanese pound, officially pegged at 1,507 to the dollar, plunged to new black market lows after Hariri’s announcement, selling for more than 22,000 to the dollar.

The currency crash sparked roadblocks and protests Thursday night amid growing anger against a ruling class long accused of negligence and corruption.

(AFP)

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