Hariri back as Prime Minister in crisis-hit Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s President tasked former Prime Minister Saad Hariri with forming a new government on Thursday, bringing back the veteran politician a year after he was toppled amid nationwide protests against widespread corruption and a flunking economy.

President Michel Aoun designated Hariri after a slight majority vote by lawmakers, securing the return of an old name to lead the country desperate for change.

Hariri now faces a more impoverished Lebanon, devastated by a massive August explosion that defaced Beirut, but also a more determined opposition.

The 50-year-old politician takes the helm with a sense of urgency and more involvement by international leaders who have warned Lebanon is on the verge of collapse. Hariri pledged to quickly form a new government — his fourth in the last decade — to halt the economic collapse, calling it the “last and only” opportunity.

The task is enormous, amid an unprecedented economic crisis and stiff opposition, including from former political allies and protesters demanding change.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri delivers a statement after the President named him to form a new Cabinet, at the presidential palace in Baabda. PHOTO: AFP

In the past year, Lebanon’s currency has collapsed, losing nearly 80 per cent of its value while prices, unemployment and inflation soared. Lebanese have been unable to access their savings, as banks imposed informal capital controls, fearing a run on deposits.

The gigantic August explosion in Beirut’s port, caused by thousands of tonnes of highly explosive chemicals stored in a warehouse, compounded the crises. The blast, which killed nearly 200 people and injured over 6,000, was seen as further proof of an incompetent political class that has governed the small country since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990.

“As if nothing happened at all this whole year. Hariri is back and the (political class) is pleased,” said Hayat Nazer, a protester and artist. “It is clear they have ignored the public’s outcry.”

Hariri vowed to stop the economic, social and security meltdown and rebuild after the port explosion, “I say to Lebanese who are suffering hardship to the point of despair, I am determined to keep my promise.”

Human Rights Watch said Lebanon’s domestic probe into the blast has been marred by political meddling and lack of judicial independence. The group called on Thursday for a United Nations (UN)-led inquiry to determine responsibility.

Hariri’s successor last year — a university professor who led a government supported by Hezbollah and its allies — stepped down after the August 4 blast.

Hariri pledged a government of non-partisan specialists tasked with implementing reforms according to the French initiative, endorsed by mainstream Lebanese politicians. Its priority is to resume talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a desperately needed bailout, amid rapidly shrinking foreign currency reserves.

But Lebanon’s complex sectarian-based political system makes reaching major decisions a significant challenge.