Caretaker government request set to anger Lebanese

Revolutionaries calling for non-sectarian, neutral PM in country plagued by corruption

Anti-government protesters wave the flag of Lebanon as they gather in Martyr’s Square in Beirut on Tuesday night. Photograph: Diego Ibarra Sanchez/New York Times

Anti-government protesters wave the flag of Lebanon as they gather in Martyr’s Square in Beirut on Tuesday night. Photograph: Diego Ibarra Sanchez/New York Times

 

Lebanese are certain to be infuriated by President Michel Aoun’s request that the government, which resigned on Tuesday, stay on in caretaker capacity. A commenter on one online article, “lebanonforever”, spoke for countrymen and women calling for reform by saying, “NO NO NO NO”.

Their anger will focus on the powerful triumvirate of Aoun, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who opposed prime minister Saad Hariri’s decision to stand down after two weeks of mass protests against 30 years of misrule and corruption.

The caretaker cabinet will have no change in personnel and no mandate or authority to tackle protesters’ grievances or deliver on their demands. A new government with the power to act is needed now. According to senior officials, Hariri has said he would agree to form such a government only if he can appoint technocrats who can promptly carry out reforms required to avoid economic meltdown.

Hariri is, however, a spent force. He was always a weak choice as Sunni leader to replace his powerful father, former premier Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Saad Hariri has failed to implement oft-promised reforms or cut corruption. Instead he has imposed austerity measures and new taxes. He is under fire for paying $16 million to a South African model while allowing his local media firm to withhold pay and lay off employees.

Collapsing economy

At present there is no obvious Sunni to assume the premiership. Finding a candidate could take months but Lebanon’s entrenched politicians are out of time. Central Bank governor Riad Salameh has warned the economy could collapse within days if the country continues to be paralysed by protests. The politicians are also out of options.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from all sects and levels of society want to topple the political caste, which has mismanaged and looted Lebanon since the civil war ended in 1990. The chant in the streets is “All means all”. Revolutionaries see the ousting of politicians as the first step in the process of ending Lebanon’s stifling sectarian regime.

This specifies that the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliamentary speaker a Shia, while other posts are distributed among the country’s 18 sects.

Since adopting secular governance is their ultimate goal, the revolutionaries demand the appointment of a non-sectarian, neutral prime minister who will preside over a small technocratic cabinet. They are also under pressure to leave the streets. Rain and cool weather will shrink protests, many people will have to return to normal life, and employees who cannot go to their jobs demand an end to disruption.

Loans postponed

Mass protests alone did not doom Hariri. Demonstrators blocked main roads. Banks, schools, universities, government offices and banks closed. Financial agencies downgraded Lebanon’s credit ratings to “junk”, making it difficult or impossible for the country to keep borrowing to stay afloat. Finally, a Paris meeting to discuss $11 billion in grants and loans for Lebanon has been postponed.

After the civil war ended, the government did not rebuild infrastructure and provide electricity, potable water, healthcare, public education and jobs for the growing population. Lebanese emigrated to secure a decent standard of living and sent remittances to family members in Lebanon.

In July, the government imposed taxes to fund its salaries and perks and pay interest on Lebanon’s debt, which stands at 150 per cent of gross domestic product, the third-highest in the world.

On October 17th, Lebanese took to the streets to protest at a $0.20 daily tax on free messaging services, including WhatsApp. The mass action, dubbed the “WhatsApp Revolution”, is bound to continue.

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