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Lebanon's new PM begins bid to form much-delayed Cabinet

By AFP - Jul 28,2021 - Last updated at Jul 28,2021

A handout photo provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanon's two-time premier Najib Mikati holds a press conference following his meeting with the president at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut, on Monday (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — Lebanon's new prime minister-designate Najib Mikati on Tuesday held consultations with political parties that he said "unanimously" agreed on the need to put together a government quickly to rescue the crisis-hit country.

But after nearly a year of extreme drift, an economic crisis described by the World Bank as one of the world's worst since the 1850's and continued squabbling among political players, he faces an uphill battle.

Mikati, a billionaire who has already twice served as prime minister, took on the task on Monday, days after fellow veteran politician Saad Hariri threw in the towel.

The last government resigned amid public outrage over a deadly explosion of hundreds of tonnes of poorly stored fertiliser at Beirut Port last August.

The institutional vacuum is holding up a potential financial rescue plan for the country, which defaulted on its debt last year.

On Tuesday, Mikati met with top political parties, including the powerful Hizbollah movement and the Free Patriotic Movement founded by President Michel Aoun.

"There was unanimous agreement from all blocs and lawmakers on the need to speed up the process of Cabinet formation," Mikati said after consultations ended.

The meetings are the customary official step that follows a new prime minister's designation, but the high-stakes horse-trading has yet to even begin.

Scepticism 

Following a meeting with Mikati, Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Raad said his party is ready to "cooperate seriously" with the new PM-designate.

FPM chief Gebran Bassil, accused by critics of repeatedly obstructing previous efforts to form a new government, said his party would stand aside this time.

We will "not to participate in the next Cabinet, which means we will not get involved in the formation process".

In an interview with the An-Nahar newspaper, Mikati vowed his lineup would be "purely technical" and tasked with bridging the gap to elections due next year.

Several lawmakers, including Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli, backed this push on Tuesday.

“The government will consist of specialists,” Ferzli said. “As for the nominating process, it will rest on Mikati and his agreements with the president.”

The designation of 65-year-old Mikati, Lebanon’s richest man and to many a symbol of its corrupt oligarchy, was met with general scepticism.

A native of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and one of its poorest, he was accused by a state prosecutor in 2019 of illicit enrichment, a charge he denies.

“How can I trust a thief who stole from me and my children and their future?” asked 57-year-old Beirut resident Mohammed Deeb, after Mikati’s designation.

“As long as this [political] class is still in power, nothing will change.”

On Sunday evening, dozens of protesters gathered outside Mikati’s Beirut home, accusing him of corruption and cronyism.

Most aid blocked 

Lebanon’s former colonial ruler France and other Western governments stopped short of welcoming Mikati’s designation and simply urged him to swiftly deliver a competent lineup.

But Lebanon’s bickering politicians view Mikati as a consensus candidate, who may be capable of easing the near-year-long political deadlock.

Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt the job, promised his government would work on implementing a French roadmap conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.

In some of his first comments after his designation, Mikati said he would prioritise what little international aid is currently available towards addressing severe power blackouts, according to the Al Akhbar newspaper.

Lebanon can no longer provide mains electricity to its citizens for more than a handful of hours each day, nor can it afford to buy the fuel needed to power generators.

Almost none of the international community’s demands for a broad programme of reforms have so far been met.

Further stalling the bankrupt state’s recapitalisation has been the government’s failure to engage the International Monetary Fund and discuss a fully-fledged rescue plan.

Until then, the monetary institution is due to send around $900 million, but experts warn it will not be enough and risks being misused.

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