Lebanese MPs sleep in parliament to press for end to impasse

Two independent Lebanese lawmakers who spent the night in parliament vowed Friday to stay until MPs elect a new president, as political deadlock hobbles the country already in deep economic crisis.

Lebanon has been without a head of state for more than two months and the government has been operating in a caretaker capacity since May as sectarian leaders fail to reach a political consensus on who should govern.

The embattled local currency, which in three years has lost more than 95 percent of its value, dropped to a new low Thursday against the US dollar as parliament failed for an 11th time to agree on a new president.

"We will stay in parliament, and we call on lawmakers to remember their responsibilities, carry them out and elect a president," said MP Melhem Khalaf, who together with lawmaker Najat Saliba is holding the sit-in.

"Without a government, a president, and with only a powerless parliament... Are we supposed to leave Lebanese to their fate?" he told AFP from the parliament chamber.

An economic crisis dubbed by the World Bank as one of the worst in recent global history has plunged much of the population into poverty.

The current squabbling is mainly between lawmakers supporting the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and those who oppose it -- but neither side has a clear majority.

- 'New hope' -

The two independents, Khalaf and Saliba, were elected last year on the back of protests in late 2019 against a factional elite that has dominated Lebanese politics since the 1975-1990 civil war.

"We hope that today will bring new hope to Lebanon," Saliba said in a video posted on social media on Friday.

Several other independent lawmakers visited the pair on Thursday evening as dozens of activists gathered near parliament to show their support.

Videos posted on social media showed the MPs sitting in the dark against the light of their mobile phones, as Lebanon suffers from chronic electricity cuts of up to 23 hours a day.

The international community has urged leaders to end the months of political paralysis and help stem the financial meltdown.

Almost two million people in Lebanon were food insecure in the last four months of last year, according to a study published by the United Nations and the agriculture ministry this week.

It is a huge fall for a country that once boasted the monicker "Switzerland of the Middle East" for its role as a regional financial centre.

The European Union's ambassador to Lebanon Ralph Tarraf said politicians needed to step up and address the country's challenges.

"It is high time to bring the economy back on a path of recovery," he told reporters on Thursday.

- 'Not going to change' -

France is trying to organise a meeting to rally regional and international powers -- including the United States and Saudi Arabia -- to Lebanon's cause, diplomatic sources told AFP, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media about the matter.

But political decision-making in Lebanon can take months of horse-trading between foreign-backed sectarian leaders.

The election of former president Michel Aoun in 2016 followed a more than two-year vacancy at the presidential palace, as lawmakers made 45 failed attempts to elect a new head of state.

Michael Young from the Carnegie Middle East Center said the sit-in reflected the lawmakers' "frustration".

However, he warned that their action "is not going to change the slightest thing".

Agreement between key international and regional actors could prove more effective in getting Lebanon's leaders to see eye to eye, he said.

"If there were a local consensus that would be ideal, we wouldn't need anyone" to help broker an agreement, Young told AFP.

"But as usual, in Lebanon everyone has to look towards their regional sponsor and regional ally."

lar/aya/lg