Lebanon's Gebran Bassil backs technocrat government without Saad Hariri

Change of stance on protesters' demand puts his FPM party odds with its ally Hezbollah

Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement will back a new government made up entirely of technocrats, but not with caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri at its head, its leader said, adding a further twist to a political crisis triggered by two months of anti-government protests.

Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who heads the Christian party founded by his father-in-law, President Michel Aoun, outlined its position at a press conference on Thursday night.

"Should Hariri insist on the 'nobody but me' approach, and should Hezbollah and Amal Movement hold on to a techno-political government led by Hariri, we have no interest in partaking in such a Cabinet as it is doomed to failure," Mr Bassil was quoted as saying by Lebanon's National News Agency.

"The solution is clear, which is the formation of an effective rescue government, a government of experts whose members and head are specialists capable of restoring people's confidence, and who are backed by political forces and parliamentary blocs," he said.

Mr Bassil's statement reverses his party's earlier opposition to the protest movement's call for established political leaders to make way for a government of technocrats. The protesters have also said they will not accept Mr Hariri as returning prime minister.

Mr Hariri resigned as prime minister on October 29 in response to the protesters' demands.

The protesters accuse the country's politicians of corruption, failing to deliver basic services and mismanaging the economy. Lebanon has been unable to access an $11 billion assistance fund pledged last year because the government has been unable to implement the reforms demanded by donor countries.

Lebanon's caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Mr Hariri has supported the call for a government of technocrats but remains the most likely candidate to head one. The country's top Sunni religious leader called Mr Hariri the preferred candidate, rejecting another proposed name. Hezbollah also wants him to head a mixed government of technocrats and politicians.

Under Lebanon's sectarian-based political system, the prime minister is chosen from the Sunni community, the president is a Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a speech on Friday reiterated that a political cabinet was the best way to find solutions to the country’s problems. His comments come despite protesters saying that successive political governments since the end of the war in 1990 have failed to provide even basic functioning internet, water and power among the myriad of issues the state faces.

Nasrallah’s comments also contradicted those made by his ally Mr Bassil.

“The patriotic duty calls for everyone to take responsibility, to take part and for all to offer concessions,” Nasrallah said in a 70-minute speech in which he characterized the situation in Lebanon as dire. “How can a government from one group deal with a crisis of this nature?”

He said any “salvation government would have to take unpopular measures,” and can’t afford to engage in disagreements with other political parties.

Nasrallah said Hezbollah had supported a coalition government headed by Mr Hariri, but said the resigned prime minister laid down conditions his group found “inappropriate and some of them were exclusionary.” He didn’t elaborate but urged him to give up some of his conditions.

Nasrallah said Hezbollah is ready to support a consensus candidate for the premier post, but only as part of a coalition government that represents everyone.

Consultations between President Aoun and parliamentary blocs to name a new premier are expected on Monday. They were postponed once before over disagreements on naming a new premier.

Mr Hariri told the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund's top executives on Thursday that he was committed to preparing an urgent rescue plan to alleviate the country’s worsening economic crisis, according to a statement from his office.

He discussed the technical assistance they could provide for such a plan and asked for increased financial support from the World Bank's International Finance Corporation to ensure the country's imports are uninterrupted amid a deepening foreign currency crisis.

Mr Hariri’s call came a day after an international group of Lebanon’s allies said the country cannot expect to receive aid unless a new government is formed to institute major reforms.

The caretaker prime minister wrote to leaders of several countries last week seeking help to keep up the import of essential goods into Lebanon.