Lebanon PM-designate Hassan Diab begins tough talks to form government

The country has not had a government since October

In this photo released by Lebanon's official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, meets with newly-assigned Lebanese Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. Diab said he plans to form a government of experts and independents to deal with the country's crippling economic crisis. Diab spoke to reporters Friday, following a meeting with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a day after he was asked by the president to form the country's next government. (Dalati Nohra via AP)
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Lebanon's prime minister-designate on Saturday launched consultations to form a desperately-needed government for a protest-hit country facing economic collapse, saying political leaders are warming up to a line-up of independent experts.

Debt-burdened Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since former prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29 in the face of nationwide protests.

Demonstrators are demanding an overhaul of the political establishment which they deem corrupt and inept, insisting on a government of independents and experts with no ties to the country's sectarian parties.

But Shiite groups Amal and Hezbollah have been demanding a government that includes representatives of established parties.

"Lebanon is in intensive care," prime minister-designate Hassan Diab told reporters after meeting several political leaders on Saturday.

"All (political) sides are in line with my (proposal) for a government of independents and experts, including Hezbollah," he said.

Mr Diab, a 60-year-old engineering professor and self-styled technocrat, said he is hoping to set up a 20-member government within four to six weeks.

He said he would start talks with representatives of the popular movement on Sunday to form such a government.

But the challenges he must overcome became clear however from the onset of Saturday's talks with various officials and lawmakers.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said he "insists on securing representation for all parliamentary groups," in the next government -- a position shared by his Shiite Amal party.

Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad after meeting Mr Diab said "wider representation" would help accelerate the formation of a government.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who heads the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement, said he would prefer a government that did not include high-profile political figures, but said that parliamentary blocs should be represented in some form.

Mr Diab was designate prime minister on Thursday with backing from the Iran-backed Hezbollah, Amal and Bassil's FPM.

But Mr Hariri's Sunni bloc did not endorse his nomination, along with other key Christian and Druze Muslim parties and all have said they will not take part in Diab's government.

Samir al-Jisr, an MP from Hariri's Future Movement, said the government Diab would set up would be "supported by only one political stripe".

On the ground, Sunni supporters of Hariri have blocked roads with burning tyres and scuffled with security forces in Beirut and other cities for the past two consecutive nights to voice their opposition for Diab.

Hezbollah sought to appease the anger of the protesters on Saturday, insisting that the next government will not be lopsided.

"No one should think the government will be one of confrontation or one endorsed by only one political stripe," said Raad.

The new government, he said, will seek to "revitalise" the economy that has taken a beating since the unprecedented protests began on October 17.

Since then, tensions have been heightened by the looming bankruptcy of the debt-burdened Lebanese state.

A dollar-liquidity crisis has pushed banks to impose informal capital controls on dollar deposits and the Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the US dollar, has lost around 30 percent of its value on the black market.

The faltering economy has pushed several companies to close, while surviving businesses try to stay open by paying half-salaries and laying off employees.

A recession of more than 0.2 percent is expected for this year, the World Bank says.

The international community, donors, and financial organisations have warned that debt-saddled Lebanon could ill afford any delay in getting a new government.

The United States, France and other allies of Lebanon have warned they would withhold financial support until a government that can demonstrate willingness to reform can be formed.

Multi-confessional Lebanon is ruled by a complex political system that seeks to maintain a fragile equilibrium between political parties representing the country's major confessional sects.

It usually takes months to form a government as political groups haggle over the allocation of cabinet seats and the distribution of ministerial portfolios.