BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new government, made up of members nominated by the Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies got down to business Wednesday, a day after it was formed. Questions arose immediately about its ability to halt a spiral of economic and political collapse.
As the government headed by Hassan Diab held its first meeting, protesters briefly closed off major roads in and around the capital Beirut, denouncing it as a rubber stamp for the same political parties they blame for widespread corruption. Later on Wednesday, a few hundred protesters from northern and eastern Lebanon engaged in violent confrontations with security forces in downtown Beirut.
Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the young men, who ripped tiles off of buildings in downtown, breaking them up to use as stones to throw at police. Thick grey smoke hung over the city center as police fired volley after volley of gas canisters that left protesters wretching and gasping for breath.
Diab vowed to tackle the country’s crippling crisis — the worst since the 1975-90 civil war — saying his Cabinet will adopt financial and economic methods different than those of previous governments. But analysts said it was highly unlikely a government backed by the powerful militant Hezbollah group and its allies would be able to drum up the international and regional support needed to avoid economic collapse.
Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and oil-rich Gulf countries whose support is badly needed for debt-ridden Lebanon. The European Union considers the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
“These ministers and this government will not be able to make independent decisions related to the economy or the political situation, so long as their decisions are up to the parties that formed this government, first and foremost Hezbollah,” said political analyst Youssef Diab.
Protesters first took to the streets in mid-October in a mass uprising against the country’s ruling elite, which they blame for decades of corruption and mismanagement that have brought Lebanon to the brink of economic collapse.
Since then, the country has sunk deeper into a political crisis. The Lebanese pound, long pegged to the dollar, has lost up to 60% of its value against the dollar and banks have imposed unprecedented capital controls to preserve liquidity.
Although the government announced Tuesday is technically made up of specialists, the ministers were named by political parties in a process involving horse trading and bickering with little regard for the demands of protesters for a transparent process and independent candidates.
President Michel Aoun told the ministers they have a “delicate mission” to win the confidence of the Lebanese people by working to improve living conditions and the economy. He said they should also work to win the confidence of the international community in “Lebanon’s state institutions.”
In some of the first international reaction, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to do “everything” to help Lebanon out of its crisis. He added, however, that France is concerned about any ’terrorist activity originating in Lebanon or stirred up in Lebanon, which could threaten Israel as well.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the formation of a new government, saying “he looks forward to working with” Diab and his Cabinet, “including in support of Lebanon’s reform agenda and to address the pressing needs of its people.”
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials on government formation.
Speaking about the economic and financial deterioration, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni told the local Al-Jadeed TV that “stopping the deterioration in the coming period cannot be achieved without foreign help.”
Samir Geagea, head of the Christian Lebanese Forces party that refused to take part in the Cabinet, criticized the new government saying that after three months of protests the state “is behaving as if nothing happened.” He said “most of the ministers are connected to political groups that brought the country to where it is” today.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon said it expects from the new government a “clear financial and economic program that takes into consideration the big challenges that Lebanon is facing.” It added that the banking sector is ready to help in getting Lebanon out of its crisis.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. dollar was being bought at exchange shops around the country for 2,000 Lebanese pounds after hitting a record of 2,500 pounds to the dollar last week. The official rate remained at 1,507 pounds to the dollar. Panic and anger have gripped the public as the pound, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted in value. It fell more than 60% in recent weeks on the black market.
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