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

Coronavirus cases soar as Israel prepares tighter measures

Updated 49 sec ago

Coronavirus cases soar as Israel prepares tighter measures

  • Israel, a country of some 9 million people, now has one of the world’s highest rates of coronavirus on a per capita basis
  • The government reopened the economy too quickly, and a new outbreak has quickly spread throughout the summer

JERUSALEM: Israel on Wednesday reported a new record level of daily cases of the coronavirus, shortly before government officials were to meet to discuss tightening a new nationwide lockdown.
The Health Ministry reported 6,861 new cases on Wednesday as a raging outbreak showed no signs of slowing. Israel, a country of some 9 million people, now has one of the world’s highest rates of coronavirus on a per capita basis, and health officials say hospitals are quickly approaching capacity.
The government last week imposed a nationwide lockdown that closed schools, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. The coronavirus Cabinet was to meet later in the day to discuss further tightening the restrictions.
Ahead of the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that in light of the rapid spread of the virus, he would seek a “a broad general closure and significant tightening of restrictions immediately,” including the closure of large parts of the economy, his office said.
Israel won international praise for its handling of the outbreak last spring, moving quickly to seal its borders and impose a lockdown that appeared to contain the virus. But the government reopened the economy too quickly, and a new outbreak has quickly spread throughout the summer. The economy, meanwhile, has not recovered from a serious downturn caused by the first lockdown, and the new lockdown has led to a new wave of layoffs.
A new poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute, a respected think tank, found that only 27% of Israelis trust Netanyahu to lead the country’s effort against COVID-19. That compares with 57.5% who trusted him in early April. The survey interviewed 754 adults and had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.
The Health Ministry has instructed hospitals to delay non-essential surgeries and to open additional coronavirus wards as the number of serious cases continues to rise.
Beyond further limiting economic activity, officials have been discussing shuttering synagogues and clamping down on protests — both of which risk sparking a public backlash.
The limits would come at a time when Israeli Jews are celebrating the High Holidays and when weekly demonstrations have been held against Netanyahu and his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The ongoing protests have bitterly divided the country, with religious leaders saying their public is being unfairly targeted by restrictions on public prayer while Netanyahu’s opponents continue to hold large public demonstration. Demonstrators say Netanyahu’s supporters are using the outbreak as an excuse to muzzle their democratic right to protest.
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said restrictions would have to be tightened in the near future.
“Educational institutions will be closed, the economy will be limited to essential work, synagogues will have no indoor prayers, with arrangements for outdoor prayer, and demonstrations will be allowed without protesters traveling between cities,” he told Channel 12 TV. “Everyone will demonstrate where he wants, will pray where he wants and will stay at home. That is what is required now.”