After 13-month deadlock, Lebanon forms first new government since Beirut blast
Lebanon’s new prime minister, Najib Mikati, pledged Friday to do everything in his power to halt his country’s dramatic economic collapse, urging fractious politicians to work together after a new government was finally announced — the first in more than a year.
Holding back tears, Mikati, one of Lebanon’s richest men, spoke about mothers who could not feed their children and students whose parents could no longer afford to send them to school.
“The situation is difficult but not impossible to deal with if we cooperate,” Mikati told reporters at the presidential palace, where the new government was announced Friday.
The power-sharing agreement breaks a 13-month deadlock that saw the country slide deeper into financial chaos and poverty. A date for parliament to convene to approve the government and its agenda has not yet been announced.
Lebanon has been without a fully empowered government since the catastrophic Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at the Beirut port, which forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government. Rival political groups had been locked in disagreement over the makeup of a new government since then, hastening the country’s economic meltdown.
The new Cabinet of 24 ministers headed by Mikati, a billionaire businessman, was announced by the president’s office, and later by Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers Mahmoud Makkieh. The ministers were hand-picked by the same politicians who have ruled the country for the past decades, blamed by many for corruption and mismanagement leading to the country’s current crisis.
Shortages of basic goods have hit Lebanon as its leaders do little to resolve a long-running currency crisis that has sparked despair and desperation.
Many of them, however, are experts in their fields, such as Firas Abiad, the director general of the public hospital that’s leading Lebanon’s fight against the coronavirus. Abiad has won praise for his transparency in handling the pandemic. A top central bank official, Youssef Khalil, was appointed as finance minister, and Bassam Mawlawi, a judge, is the new interior minister.
The new government faces a mammoth task that few believe can be accomplished, including undertaking critically needed reforms. Among its first jobs will be managing public anger and tensions resulting from the end of fuel subsidies expected by the end of the month, overseeing a financial audit of the central bank and resuming negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package. The new Cabinet is also expected to oversee general elections scheduled for next year.
Mikati, who hails from the northern city of Tripoli, was tasked with forming a new government in July. He is widely considered to be part of the same political class that brought the country to bankruptcy. He served as prime minister in 2005 and from 2011 to 2013.
“I hope we can fulfill people’s aspirations and at least stop the collapse,” he said Friday. He said the government would launch a rescue plan for the country.
The imposing grain silos at Beirut’s port mostly withstood last year’s massive explosion — but now serve as reminders of negligence and destruction.
It was not immediately clear what sudden compromise resulted in the political breakthrough Friday. The announcement of a new government follows recent U.S. and French pressure to form a Cabinet, after Lebanon’s economic unraveling reached a critical point with crippling shortages in fuel and medicine threatening to shut down hospitals, bakeries and the country’s internet.
The currency has lost 90% of its value against the dollar since October 2019, driving hyperinflation and plunging more than half the population into poverty.
Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist and political analyst, said a new government provides a “dose of oxygen” for Lebanese whose lives have been upended by the crisis.
“A positive shock has happened, but we have to see how the government will work, and how they will negotiate with the IMF,” Zahran said.
As their country sinks deeper into poverty and collapse, many Lebanese are more openly criticizing the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group.
Mikati became a favorite for the post after he was endorsed by most of Lebanon’s political parties, including the powerful Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group and the other major Shiite party, Amal, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Mikati was also endorsed by former Sunni prime ministers, including Saad Hariri, who abandoned efforts to form a government earlier this year after failing to agree with President Michel Aoun on the Cabinet’s makeup.
The international community has refused to help Lebanon financially before wide reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement.
Alain Aoun, a member of parliament representing the largest Christian faction close to the Lebanese president, said international pressure and “signals” from the U.S. and Iran that they had no conditions or reservations over the shape of the government accelerated an agreement between the internal rival parties.
“The American message was really pushing forward for the government to be formed,” Aoun said, while the same message came from Iran’s president in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron.
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