Lebanon’s ousted prime minister is back in charge.
After a year of economic meltdown and the devastation caused by the Beirut port explosion, Lebanon has chosen former prime minister Saad Hariri – who quit in October of 2019 after nationwide protests – to once again lead the cabinet.
President Michel Aoun tasked Hariri with forming a new government after he won a parliamentary vote on Thursday. Hariri's appointment should, in theory, end the political deadlock holding up much-needed international aid following the massive explosion in the port of Beirut. On the 4th of August, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the capital, killing 202 people and injuring over 6,000, and causing $15 billion in damage across the city. In practice, Hariri needs once again to overcome the economic challenges that forced him to resign in 2019.
"Having Hariri as a prime minister wouldn't change anything in reality,” Naila Saba, a cafe owner and entrepreneur based in Beirut, told VICE News. “These are the [same] people responsible for dragging the country into this mess. The incoming funds and cash would refresh the economy for a year or two, but with these groups of people leading Lebanon, generations will suffer their corrupt patronage system that evaporates all the money coming into the country.”
The prime minister-designate pledged on Thursday to form a new government quickly. During his acceptance speech, he called the coming government the "last opportunity" to save the Lebanon from total collapse, and said: "I tell the Lebanese people, who are facing despairing hardships, I say that I am dedicated to my promise to them to work on stopping the collapse that is threatening our economy, our security, and to rebuild the destruction of the terrible port explosion in Beirut.”
Hariri was forced to resign last year following protests ignited by anger at the government's plan to tax WhatsApp voice calls. These spiralled into nationwide demonstrations demanding reform of the confessional parliamentary system, which has stoked endemic corruption and ethnic and religious conflicts since the country’s birth. Following the protests, the value of the Lebanese lira collapsed by 80 percent this year.
Streets across all Lebanon’s major cities were filled with young people hoping for a revolution and urging political change. Then, the economic crisis began to bite and the mood soured into hopelessness, as unemployment and inflation soared and people were left unable to access their savings after banks imposed informal capital controls.
In an attempt to appoint a "technocrat" to head the government and address the economic crisis, parliament designated academic Mustafa Diab, but he resigned following the Beirut blast.
The news of Hariri’s reappointment – to many, a symbol of Lebanon’s entrenched political class – was greeted with protests in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on Wednesday and Thursday, where demonstrators raised posters reading: “Saad, don’t dream of it,” while Hariri’s supporters set fire to some of the protest materials.
"The counter revolution led by the political class and banks succeeded in suppressing the protesters, making people poor and reviving the sectarian confessional system,” Jad Chaaban, a Lebanese economist and political activist, wrote on Twitter. “They will not get away with this… the signs of a collapsing regime are clear, and the role of popular opposition is still crucial for building a new republic."
The port explosion led French president Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders to demand Lebanon implement a government that would address the fundamental issues affecting the Lebanese economy, such as corruption, and carry out reforms.
The French president previously visited the ruins of the blast, met with all the Lebanese factions and gave them a deadline of three months to get their house in order, warning of the withholding of international aid or a desperately needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout if the power-sharing strategy failed.
In Lebanon, the power-sharing system gives the premiership to a Sunni Muslim, in a three-way division shared alongside the presidency for the Christians, and a Shiite chairing the parliament. The mechanism, which secures representation based on religious and sectarian constraints, has led to corruption, nepotism and the gradual slide of the economy into ruins.