Hezbollah-backed candidate Diab on course to be Lebanese PM

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President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally who has also been at political loggerheads with Hariri, began consultations on Thursday with deputies to designate the new premier, who must be a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian political system

Former minister Hassan Diab is set to be named Lebanon’s new prime minister on Thursday with backing from the Iran-backed group Hezbollah and its allies, a move that could complicate efforts to secure badly needed Western financial aid.

Wrestling with the worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, Lebanon has been in dire need of a new government since outgoing Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on October 29, prompted by protests against the ruling elite.

But efforts to reach a deal on a new premier and government have been mired in divisions that reflect long-standing tensions between Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, and the heavily armed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist group and sanctioned by Washington.

President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally who has also been at political loggerheads with Hariri, began consultations on Thursday with deputies to designate the new premier, who must be a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian, is required to designate the candidate with the most support.

The move to nominate Diab signalled a decision by Hezbollah and its allies to abandon efforts to forge a consensus with Hariri and to install a candidate of their choosing, drawing on the parliamentary majority they secured in a 2018 election.

The new government will face an unprecedented financial crisis: banks are imposing tight capital controls, the Lebanese pound has slumped by a third from its official rate and companies are shedding jobs and slashing salaries.

Hariri and his party bow out

Hariri had seemed on course to be nominated prime minister himself but withdrew his candidacy on Wednesday.

His decision followed a move by the Christian Lebanese Forces, a staunchly anti-Hezbollah party with close Gulf ties, to nominate neither Hariri nor anyone else for the position. The Lebanese Forces was once a close ally of Hariri.

Hariri’s Future Movement also named no one for the post and told Aoun it would not take part in the next government.

Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said political tensions could lead to unrest between Shi’ite supporters of Hezbollah and Amal on the one hand, and Sunni supporters of Hariri on the other.

“The lack of Hariri support means that it is a polarising government, which means it is less likely they will see [foreign] support,” he said.

Hariri had said he would only return as prime minister of a government of specialists which he believed would be able to secure Western support and satisfy protesters who have been demonstrating against rampant state corruption.

Diab served as education minister in a government led by ex-premier Najib Mikati. Diab, who has a doctorate in computer engineering, is currently Vice President at the American University of Beirut, according to his website.

Elie Ferzli, the deputy parliament speaker and a political ally of Hezbollah, was the first lawmaker to declare support for Diab.

But while Ferzli said Diab’s nomination took “into account some of the basic prerequisites wanted by the people”, calling him an “academic and person of integrity”, former prime minister Mikati said he was not up to the job.

“I don’t want to deflate the hopes of Lebanese but I am sceptical that any of the proposed names could shoulder [the responsibility] during this period,” said Mikati, who had backed Hariri for the post.

After announcing Hezbollah’s support for Diab, Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Raad said the group had extended the hand of cooperation “for the sake of the country”.