Lebanon crisis escalates as last-ditch cabinet talks fail to form new govt

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Lebanon's prime minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun failed Monday to agree on a new government line-up after months of deadlock, as the country sinks deeper into economic crisis.

A steep depreciation of the Lebanese pound along with an explosion of poverty and unemployment have eroded purchasing power and fuelled anger among the population, reigniting protests against the entrenched ruling class.

Despite public outrage and international pressure to form a government so as to enact reforms needed to unlock aid pledges, wrangling over cabinet posts persists seven months after the outgoing government resigned in the wake of a devastating explosion in Beirut, widely blamed on official negligence.

The failure on Monday to agree a cabinet line-up crushed hopes for a breakthrough, with public barbs exchanged between the two leaders raising fears of a total impasse. No new meeting has been announced.

"I asked the president to listen to the woes of the people and to give this country its final chance of having a technocratic government capable of reform," Hariri said from the presidential palace after his proposal was rejected.

Hariri said Aoun and the party he founded were pushing for a third of all cabinet seats, which would give them veto power over government decisions.

Aoun "sent me last night a line-up that grants his team a third of cabinet seats", he said. "This is not acceptable."

The presidency quickly denied in a statement any desire for a "blocking minority" and expressed "surprise" at Hariri's "words" and tone.

Hariri, a three-time premier who was selected in October to form a new government, made public an alternative line-up he said he had submitted to the president more than three months ago.

Hariri's proposal was comprised mainly of experts and included fresh names, such as Firas Abiad, the head of Lebanon's main coronavirus hospital, Nasser Yasin of the American University of Beirut and prominent political scientist Fadia Kiwan, according to a list published by his office.

'No hope'

The outgoing government of premier Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of an August 4 explosion at Beirut's port that killed more than 200 people and ravaged the capital.

Lebanon's leaders have traded blame for the government delay, with Aoun calling on Hariri to step down if he is incapable of forming a government suitable to all parties.

Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement and a close ally of Aoun, has also criticised the hold up.

In a speech on Thursday, Nasrallah called on Hariri to abandon his push for a 18-member cabinet comprised entirely of technocrats.

"A government of technocrats that is not backed by political groups won't save the country," Nasrallah said, calling for established parties to also be represented.

Lebanon's economic crisis is its worst since the 1975-1990 civil war.

More than half the population lives below the poverty line and the national currency has lost more than 85 percent of its value against the US dollar on the black market.

The pound, pegged at 1,507 to the dollar since 1997, sold for 15,000 to the greenback on the black market last week at an all-time low.

The rapid currency plunge reignited street protests that started in 2019 before they were temporarily snuffed out last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

'Going in circles'

Demonstrators criticised officials for wrangling over cabinet posts instead of coming together to form a government capable of spearheading reforms long demanded by donors and the international community.

"There are no signs indicating we are heading towards a solution," Lebanon's French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour reported on Monday.

"Talks are going in circles."

Pressure from international community has also mounted.

"Lebanese authorities should act urgently to halt the deepening crisis," United Nations humanitarian coordinator Najat Rochdi told the Security Council last week.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Monday pressed his European counterparts to take action to stave off Lebanon's collapse.

"I want us to be able to discuss together the levers that would allow us to put pressure on the Lebanese authorities," he said.

(AFP)