Lebanon agrees new government to spark hopes of easing economic crisis

Breakthrough after input from France opens way to possible resumption of talks with IMF

A man pushes his Mercedes past a closed petrol station in Dora, Lebanon, outside Beirut in  July. Photograph:   Bryan Denton/The New York Times

A man pushes his Mercedes past a closed petrol station in Dora, Lebanon, outside Beirut in July. Photograph: Bryan Denton/The New York Times

 

After more than a year without a fully functioning government, Lebanon’s bickering politicians on Friday agreed to form a 24-member cabinet.

Lebanon’s prime minister designate, Najib Mikati, met with president Michel Aoun to finalise the list of ministers before announcing the breakthrough 45 days after he took up the herculean challenge of halting Lebanon’s downward slide into economic collapse.

“The situation in the country is difficult,” Mr Mikati said after the decree had been signed. “I hope I can stop the collapse and bring prosperity back to the country.” He called on all Lebanese to unite to save the country.

It remains to be seen if this cabinet meets the demand for an apolitical cabinet of technocrats put forward by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a group of international donors, which have blocked $21 billion (€17.8 billion) in aid urgently needed to kickstart the economy.

Lebanon’s prime minister designate Najib Mikati (right) meeting with President Michel Aoun at the Presidential Palace in Beirut on Friday. Photograph: EPA/handout
Lebanon’s prime minister designate Najib Mikati (right) meeting with President Michel Aoun at the Presidential Palace in Beirut on Friday. Photograph: EPA/handout

First and foremost, senior central bank official Youssef Khalil, who was given the key finance portfolio, must pass muster with the IMF, the donors and foreign governments who have urged politicians to end the impasse.

A second appointee, health minister Firas al-Abiad, could lend the cabinet credibility. A highly respected figure who heads the Hariri hospital, the main facility treating Covid-19 victims, he assumes his post as cases and deaths remain high. A country with a population of 6.8 million, Lebanon has suffered 611,000 infections and 8,157 fatalities from the virus.

Not apolitical

Like the outgoing cabinet of caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, which resigned last August after the devastating explosion at Beirut port, this government is not strictly apolitical as it has been chosen by the country’s main political factions.

But, unlike Mr Diab, a neophyte who was plucked out of an academic world to head the government, Mr Mikati is a seasoned veteran of the political scene who previously served twice as prime minister.

Reputedly Lebanon’s richest man, Mr Mikati hails from the country’s poorest city, the port of Tripoli, which was the hub of the 2019 protests against what many Lebanese see as chronic mismanagement, corruption, and the sectarian power-sharing system which has entrenched the country’s political class since independence.

In spite of his status and experience, it is not clear if Mr Mikati will be able to overcome Lebanon’s multiple crises.

For the past two years, Lebanon has suffered economic meltdown, a 90 per cent plunge in the value of its currency, the closure of thousands of commercial and manufacturing firms, and spiking unemployment.

As many as 78 per cent of Lebanese citizens now live in poverty, and there has been an exodus of professionals needed to rebuild the country.

Promised by the end of this week, the new government was finally formed due to concerted French and US pressure and only after a last-minute compromise over portfolios awarded to two Christians. It has not been revealed who has compromised, however.

Last week, the Future Movement headed by former prime minister Saad Hariri laid the blame for the political stalemate on the president, Mr Aoun, who had long insisted on naming one-third of the new government members as well as holding a veto on policies.