Members of the civil defence help an injured demonstrator during a protest after Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri abandoned his effort to form a new government on July 15, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS

Beirut: Security spiralled out of control in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Thursday evening, as Saad Hariri announced that he was unable to form a cabinet, resigning from the position of prime minister-designate to which he had been named eight months ago. Within minutes of the announcement, the value of the Lebanese pound — already in freefall — crossed the 20,000 Lebanese pounds to the US benchmark, lowest in history.

Hariri had just presented President Michel Aoun with a 24-minister cabinet, which Aoun had rejected. Hariri knew that he would, nonetheless, having refused to accommodate all of Aoun’s requests. Among other things, the president had insisted that he and his son-in-law and political heir, Gibran Basil, are given the right to name all Christian ministers. He also demanded that sensitive portfolios like foreign affairs, defence, and interior, are granted to his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Hariri bended on none of the above, however explaining why his line-up was rejected. It was the third of three lists presented to the Lebanese President since March 2021.

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On Thursday afternoon Hariri told reporters: “During the conversation we proposed that the president take more time to think about the proposal and Aoun said that it looks like we’re not going to agree. For that reason I have stepped down from forming the government. God help this country.”

Had the Hariri cabinet been approved, it would probably would have been the last in the Aoun presidency, which ends in October 2022. Aoun was never too enthusiastic about a Hariri comeback, certain that he would never support Gibran Bassil’s bid for president, which among other things, requires parliamentary support and approval of the prime minister. Members of Aoun’s team are even toying with the idea of extending his mandate for 6-12 months, which Hariri would have undoubtedly rejected as well.

Parliamentary elections

Hariri had also promised to go for early parliamentary elections or carry out the official ones on time in May 2022. He had even promised that to French President Emmanuel Macron last September. Basil dreaded the idea of an early poll, however, fearing that he would lose the parliamentary majority of 29 seats that he currently enjoys within the Lebanese Chamber.

The strong era?

His reputation has greatly been damaged—much due to his own malpractices — by years of corruption, mismanagement, autocracy, and nepotism. If a new vote happens, many predict that he would never win a fraction of the 29 seats that he currently enjoys. When young Lebanese took to the streets in October 2019, they unleashed their anger against Gibran Basil specifically, blaming him for most of the country’s woes.

Then came the currency slump topped with a chronic shortage of American dollars, devouring the razor-thin savings or ordinary people and sending thousands of households into bankruptcy. All of that happened during the first three years of the Aoun presidency, which his supporters had famously coined “the strong era” while labelling him as “Father of All.”

Lebanese soldiers fire rubber-bullet amid clashes with supporters of Hariri in Beirut on July 15, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

The tipping point for Aoun, Bassil, and the entire nation was the August 4, 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut, which killed over 200 people and tore down half of the capital. One year down the road, nobody has been indicted although charges of criminal negligence have been filed against Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who had been hand-picked for the job by none other than Gibran Bassil, and three of his ministers.

One day before Hariri stepped down, families of the Beirut port explosion had demonstrated at the gates of Interior Mohammad Fihmi’s residence, another protégé of Bassil. They were turned away with sticks, guns, and bayonets.

The way forward

Although many expressed regrets that Hariri had failed in his endeavour, Michel Aoun and his team were visibly satisfied, glad to see the end of him. Aoun will now have to call for consultations with parliamentary blocs to select a replacement to Saad Hariri. The biggest bloc in Parliament (29 MPs) is held by his own Free Patriotic Movement.

A demonstrator gestures as the Lebanese army is deployed during protests. Image Credit: Reuters

Second-in-line is Hariri’s own Future Movement, which controls 21 MPS, followed by the bloc of Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri (17 MPs). Hariri’s bloc will undoubtedly reject any premier recommended by the FPM, and so would the bloc of Nabih Berri, which remains on icy relations with the Lebanese Presidency and highly critical of Bassil. Other blocs would try to obstruct Aoun’s candidate for premier like the Marada Movement (3 MPs) and the Lebanese Forces (15 MPs), both hoping of making their leaders, Sulaiman Frangieh or Samir Gagegea, the next president of Lebanon.

Prime Minister-hopefuls

Two months ago, a rumour made the rounds in Beirut that Saad Hariri was going to step down, triggering the ambition of prime minister-hopefuls. According to norm the premiership in Lebanon goes to a Sunni Muslim, something agreed upon verbally since 1943. Among the candidates was Fouad Makhzoumi, a Beirut tycoon who entered parliament for the very first time three years ago, campaigning as an independent. He is rich, well-connected, and close to the Aounists, who have actually supporting his candidacy and would not mind officially naming him for premier. Another candidate on Bassil’s list is Mustapha Adib, Lebanon’s current ambassador to Germany, who was picked for the job last year, but failed at coming up with a suitable cabinet.

Meanwhile, if the Hariri MPs take part in consultations, they are likely to name Nawaf Salam, scion of a prominent political family from Beirut who had served as Lebanon’s Ambassador to the UN and at The Hague. Hezbollah considers him too close to the Americans and would never support his candidacy.

Another strong contender would be former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a heavyweight from the city of Tripoli in the Lebanese north, who is close to both Saudi Arabia and the US, acceptable to Iran and Hezbollah, and widely respected among Muslim Sunnis. Aoun does not favor him because he would be a powerful prime minister who he cannot manipulate or control, like Hassan Diab.

These consultations can drag on for months, with no constitutional deadline. Ideally, Gibran Bassil would like them to continue indefinitely, thus keeping Hassan Diab cabinet in office (albeit in caretaker capacity) until the president’s term ends in 15-months. If the security situation gets any worse, it would give Aoun a pretext to even call off the parliamentary elections next May. That would mean keeping the current chamber in full control of the country, with a majority able and willing to support Bassil’s presidential ambition.