Lebanese Prime Minister threatens to 'withdraw' as government formation stumbles

Hassan Diab said only a new government can tackle Lebanon’s social and economic crises

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab made the threat during a televised speech on Saturday evening. EPA
Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab made the threat during a televised speech on Saturday evening. EPA

Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister threatened in televised speech on Saturday to “withdraw” and refuse to perform his duties.

Hassan Diab made the threat in an attempt to force Lebanese politicians to form a new government. It is hoped that a new Cabinet can tackle the country's worsening economic and social crises.

“If withdrawing helps with cabinet formation, then I am ready to resort to it, although it goes against my convictions because it disrupts the entire state and is detrimental to the Lebanese,” Mr Diab said.

He gave his speech after five consecutive days of protests across the country, triggered by the Lebanese pound reaching a historic low on Tuesday, at 10,000 pounds to the US dollar.

Despite being officially pegged at 1,500 pounds to the greenback, the local currency has been steadily losing value on the black market since the start of the country’s worst economic crisis in 2019.

“Who bears responsibility for this rapid downward spiral? Who can deal with the relevant dangerous repercussions? What are you waiting for?” Mr Diab said. “Further meltdown? Further human suffering? Further chaos?”

But he shied away from identifying who he was criticising.

Mr Diab resigned on August 10, after the scandal that followed by the deadly explosion at Beirut’s port that killed more than 200 people.

Former prime minister Saad Hariri was nominated as Mr Diab's successor on October 22 but has yet to form a government because political parties are bickering over ministerial posts.

Disagreements between Mr Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, and President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement have gone public, with each side regularly accusing the other of blocking progress.

Stalling IMF talks

Mr Diab, who announced last March that Lebanon was defaulting for the first time on its debt, said that the country needs a new government to start negotiations with the international community aimed at securing a financial aid package.

“The equation is clear: we cannot solve the social crisis without resolving the financial crisis. We cannot solve the financial crisis without resuming negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. We cannot carry on negotiations with the IMF without undertaking reforms, and we cannot carry out reforms without forming a new government” Mr Diab said.

Mr Diab seemed to allude to recent videos that went viral on Lebanese social media of customers fighting over baby milk in supermarkets.

“Doesn’t the scramble for milk constitute a sufficient incentive to transcend formalities and roughen the edges in order to form a government?” he asked.

Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Lebanon, said that Mr Diab was in effect admitting that his caretaker government could not prevent social breakdown.

“He is making it clear that there is no solution without the IMF despite the absence of political consensus on this issue,” he said.

Karim Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut, told The National that he could not recall a precedent in Lebanese history of a caretaker prime minister refusing to perform his duties.

The move risks “falling on deaf ears,” Mr Bitar said. “I would say this is a dignified statement, but it might not have any consequences. The divisions between the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement are too deeply entrenched."

Updated: March 7, 2021 01:23 PM

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