Protest-hit Lebanon postpones talks to pick new PM

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Hariri’s office said the deferral came to avoid ‘a nomination without any major Christian bloc taking part’

Lebanon’s president on Monday postponed consultations to select a new prime minister after weeks of largely peaceful street protests descended into violence, leaving dozens wounded in clashes with security forces.

The government stepped down on October 29 in the face of unprecedented nationwide demonstrations demanding the complete overhaul of a political class deemed inept and corrupt.

On Monday, the presidency announced that President Michel Aoun had “responded to the wishes of (caretaker) prime minister Saad Hariri to postpone parliamentary consultations until Thursday December 19.”

Hariri’s office said the deferral came to avoid “a nomination without any major Christian bloc taking part.”

It is not the first time the talks have been delayed. Parliamentary consultations had been scheduled for December 9 before being pushed back a week.

The names of various potential candidates to replace Hariri have been circulated in recent weeks, but bitterly divided political parties have failed to agree on a new premier.

Cabinet formation can drag on for months in the multi-confessional country, with Hariri taking almost nine months to reach an agreement with all political sides for the last one.

According to a complex political system that seeks to maintain a fragile balance between religious communities, Lebanon’s prime minister is always a Sunni Muslim.

Earlier this month, the Sunni Muslim establishment threw its support behind Hariri returning, further angering protesters who have demanded a cabinet of independent experts.

‘Widespread chaos’

The powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, a key political player with ministers in the outgoing government, has repeatedly dismissed the idea of an exclusively technocratic cabinet.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday he would support a “government of national partnership” that did not exclude any of the major parties. 

He said it could be headed by Hariri or someone designated by the outgoing premier.

Consensus on the name of a new prime minister is frequently reached before parliamentary consultations begin.

But Nasrallah warned parliamentary blocs had not agreed on a name and cabinet formation would be “no easy feat.”

Hariri has said he would only head a cabinet of independent experts.

The latest delay to the consultations on a new premier came the day after clashes near the parliament building in the capital Beirut between protesters and security forces.

Rallies had begun peacefully with protesters waving Lebanese flags and chanting “Hariri will not return,” but escalated later, with demonstrators throwing water bottles and firecrackers at the security forces who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

The Lebanese Red Cross said it treated 45 people on site.

“Twenty-eight people were transported to hospital,” the organisation’s director George Kettane told AFP. 

On Monday, the Lebanese army condemned the “widespread chaos” the night before, reporting “vandalism and destruction of private and public property.”

Saturday evening had seen dozens of people hurt when security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators who tried to breach metal barricades near the legislature.