Lebanon forms a new government amid financial crisis and mass protests

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Lebanon's new Prime Minister Hassan Diab signing official documents at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut. (AFP/DALATI AND NOHRA)
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Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon as the new Cabinet was announced. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 January 2020

Lebanon forms a new government amid financial crisis and mass protests

  • Cabinet made up of 20 ministers with economist Ghazi Wazni as finance minister
  • Sources say all issues that had delayed a government deal had been resolved

BEIRUT: A new government was announced in Lebanon late on Tuesday, breaking a months-long impasse amid ongoing mass protests and economic turmoil.

Hassan Diab, a 60-year-old professor at the American University of Beirut, now heads a Cabinet of 20 members, mostly specialists backed by political parties.

The move, which comes three months after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned, is unlikely to satisfy protesters. They have been calling for sweeping reforms and a government made up of independent technocrats that could deal with the country's crippling economic and financial crisis, the worst the country has faced in decades.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with Prime Minister-Designate Hassan Diab at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday. (AP)

Shortly before the Cabinet was announced, thousands of people poured into the street closing major roads in Beirut and other parts of the country in rejection of the new government.

Their anger was directed at political groups, saying they had named the new ministers.

“It’s time to get to work,” Diab said in a speech addressing the country following the announcement.

He saluted the protesters in the street and vowed to “work to fulfill your demands,” claiming that his was the first government in the history of Lebanon to be made up entirely of technocrats. He insisted the 20 ministers were specialists who had no political loyalties and were not partisan.

Diab appealed to citizens to help the government implement a “rescue program” and said this Cabinet has the “capability and qualifications, will and commitment” to carry it through.

Among the ministers named were five women, including the minister of defense and deputy prime minister.

The heads of the main ministries include career diplomat Naseef Hitti for the foreign ministry. Economist Ghazi Wazni was named finance minister and former army Gen. Mohammed Fahmi was named minister of the interior. Zeina Akar was named minister of defense and deputy prime minister.

Negotiations had been deadlocked since Hariri stepped down at the end of October, amid widespread street protests.

Diab has struggled to reconcile the demands of rival political parties and appoint an administration.

Despite demands by protesters that politicians be excluded from the Cabinet, it is thought that many of the technocrats in the new administration have been nominated by political parties. Hezbollah had nominated two new ministers.

Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut, said all proposed candidates were linked to established political parties.

“A Cabinet made up exclusively of technocrats is wishful thinking,” he said. “Behind every candidate, there is a political party backing their nomination.”

Political sources said the main sticking point had been over the number of seats sought by Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and is the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. 

FPM, the largest Christian party, had been seeking a third of the Cabinet’s seats, which would give it the same veto power it had under the previous administration.

Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Christian party Marada, cast blame for the delay squarely on Bassil and the FPM.

“His greed and ambition are obstructing the government ... let Gebran Bassil form the entire government and may God bless him,” said Frangieh, who wanted to nominate two Cabinet members but was restricted to one.

“He is pushing us toward a precipice and saying, if you are not with us then you are to blame for the obstruction. If things continue this way, it will lead to catastrophe.” 

Lebanese are pinning their hopes on a new government to spearhead reforms, unlock billions in international aid, and help stabilize a plummeting Lebanese pound that has lost over a third of its value. A dollar liquidity crisis and restrictions on dollar transactions has compounded the crisis.

“The task that awaits any Cabinet during this serious period is herculean,” said Karim Mufti, a political scientist. “In view of the multidimensional nature of the crisis, it seems difficult to envisage short-term solutions to the country’s financial, economic and social problems.”

With AP and additional reporting by Najia Al-Houssari

Yemen receives COVID-19 aid as medical sector struggles with virus

Updated 53 min 29 sec ago

Yemen receives COVID-19 aid as medical sector struggles with virus

  • Coronavirus continues to spread in several governorates in Yemen
  • The shipment contains 8,000 testing kits and 15 tonnes of medicine, equipment and safety gear

DUBAI: A shipment of coronavirus aid arrived in Aden on Tuesday as Yemen’s medical sector continues to struggle with the spread of the virus. 
A medical package of 8,000 testing kits and 15 tonnes of medicine, equipment and safety gear was sent by UNICEF, state news agency Saba New reported.
Coronavirus continues to spread in several governorates in Yemen as the country’s battered medical sector is unable to deliver, the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) said earlier this week. 
The country only has six labs where coronavirus can be tested, which according to the IOM makes the impact of the disease is hidden. 
“Lack of access to soap and water means the illness can spread faster,” a report by the IOM said.  
The country also lacks ventilators and PCR tests, official spokesman for the Supreme Emergency Committee for Combating Coronavirus Ishraq Al-Siba’i told Saba New last month.
The country’s health sector has been battered by five years of war between the Iran-backed Houthi militia and the government, backed by the Saudi-led Arab coalition.