Damascus: After much bickering, all Lebanese political parties have agreed on naming independent businessman Samir Al Khatib as the next prime minister of Lebanon, replacing Saad Hariri, who resigned on October 29, 2019. His name was originally put forth by Hariri last week, after two previous nominees backed out on the job, being ex-ministers Mohammad Al Safadi and Bahij Tabbara.
Second in line to the premiership is rumoured to be Walid Alamedine followed by Fuad Makhzoumi.
A series of rejections
Safadi, a member of the Saudi-backed March 14 Coalition, was seen as too close to the political establishment that angry protestors have been wanting to overthrow since outbreak of the Lebanese Revolution on October 17.
Aged 75, Safadi is a Sunni from Tripoli and a graduate of the American University of Beirut (AUB).
He held cabinet office from 2005 until 2014, serving as minister of public works, then economy, and finally finance.
Tabbara, aged 91, was the former lawyer of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and served in three of his cabinets as minister of justice between 1992 and 2000.
He first entered government as minister of economy back in 1973, two years before the start of the country’s civil war. He turned down the nomination to become prime minister last week, and young demonstrations rejected him, citing his advanced age.
Unlike both Safadi and Tabbara, Al Khatib is a newcomer to government, having never held public office.
He is the executive vice-president of Khatib & Alami, a contracting firm that operates throughout the region, including Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
He inherited the firm from his father-in-law, Munir Al Khatib, who established it in Beirut back in 1964.
His impeccable record and the network of business associates that he enjoys across the region will undoubtedly be useful in addressing Lebanon’s cash-strapped economy.
Economy in tatters
Since the outbreak of the revolution in mid-October, there has been a crippling shortage of dollars in the Lebanese market, as banks dive into financial crisis.
Thousands have been laid off or paid half salaries, adding to public anger.
Additionally, the Lebanese pound has lost a chunk of its original value, now trading at 2,300 to the US dollar, after a two-decade fixed rate of 1,500 LP.
Al Khatib is a Sunni Muslim from the town of Mazboud in Iklim Al Kharroub, located between the southern suburb of Beirut and Sidon.
He is a good friend of Saad Hariri, who announced on Tuesday that he was backing him for the premiership, an endorsement that was seconded on the same day by caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.
Also on Tuesday, Al Khatib met with President Aoun and Bassil, who said: “We have hope that matters have reached close to a happy ending.”
Sources at Baabda Palace added that the upcoming days will bring “positive developments.”
The Lebanese President will start consultations with leading parliamentary blocs on Thursday, seeing who endorses Al Khatib for premier.
Hariri’s Future Movement, with its 20 MPs, will put their weight behind Al Khatib, and so will the Free Patriotic Movement, with 29 MPs.
Hezbollah announced its intention to support Al Khatib after a Tuesday meeting between Hassan Khalil, the political aide to Hassan Nasrallah, and Hariri.
So has the Amal Movement, which controls 16 seats in Parliament. Combined with Hezbollah, they control 29 seats in Parliament.
For the Shiite alliance Al Khatib is an acceptable nominee, given his cordial relations with both parties and the fact that his daughter is married to the son of General Abbas Ibrahim, head of General Security, who is a Hezbollah ally.
The Lebanese Forces of Samir Gagegea are still undecided.
They control 15 seats in the current chamber and walked out on the Hariri government at the start of the Lebanese protests.
They have an axe to grind with Aoun and Bassil, but will likely take part in the next government, if all parties decide to join.
The Bassil Factor
The real challenge will be what sort of cabinet Al Khatib forms.
The street protestors are demanding a technocratic government, one where all political parties are excluded.
This is what Hariri had been pushing for since mid-October, but it has been flatly rejected by Bassil, who sees a purely technocratic government as directed against him personally, because it would automatically lead to his ouster.
Bassil has been the subject of ridicule and public outcry by the demonstrators, who accuse him of mismanagement of public office, arrogance, racism, autocracy, corruption, and claim that he is eying the Lebanese presidency, once and if his father-in-law dies or leaves office.
He has been arguing that neither he nor Hariri are technocrats, given that both are leaders of political parties with strong representation in parliament.
If Hariri stays in office, then so should Bassil, claim the Aounists.
Both had come to office thanks to a 2016 agreement with Hezbollah, which made Aoun president in exchange for making Hariri prime minister.
Bassil has been repeatedly saying that this framework still applies, although the original greement was specific to Aoun only, with no mention of his son-in-law.
A purely technocrat government would usher independent names into office, chosen for their personal merit, like Al Khatib, rather than their political affiliation.
Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movements have suggested a so-called “techno-political government” where sovereignty posts, like foreign affairs, justice, defense, and interior, are kept in the hands of the political parties, while service-oriented portfolios, like electricity and education, are handed over to technocrats.
This would appease the Aounists and the Lebanese Forces, who have insisted that they want to keep sovereignty posts, given that they control the largest Maronite bloc in Parliament.
Currently, the Aounists control 7 out of 30 seats in government, including defense, economy, and foreign affairs.
On Tuesday night, demonstrators gathered at Khatib’s residence in Al Manara on the Beirut seaside, chanting for a technocrat government, rather than a techno-political one.
How will protesters react?
It is unclear.
“Both the political elite and the protesters currently have maximalist views at the moment” said Nicholas Blanford, a prominent Beirut-based journalist who is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Speaking to Gulf News, he elaborated: “The politicians don’t want to change the status quo while the protesters are insisting on a purely technocratic government. There has to be a meeting of minds at one point.”
A technocrat government would have some kind of political affiliation, he added, to each of the rival political parties. “It would also run the high risk of having all its decisions challenged by the political class, however.”