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Beirut, Lebanon-

President Michel Aoun holds a televised press conference at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut  – DALATI AND NOHRA/AFP

Crisis-hit Lebanon’s next prime minister, the third in a year, will have to spearhead reforms and battle corruption, President Michel Aoun said Wednesday.

Aoun was speaking at a televised news conference a day before his scheduled consultations with MPs to name Lebanon’s new premier.

“I hope that you will think well about the consequences the nomination (of a premier) will have on the process of forming a government,” Aoun said, addressing lawmakers.

It will effect “reform plans and international rescue initiatives”, he said.

Saad Hariri resigned as premier in October 2019 in the wake of unprecedented street protests, but he is now expected to make a comeback at the helm of the next government.

Most parliamentary blocs have pledged support for Hariri, although Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement and  the Lebanese Forces led by his civil war rival Samir Geagea are against his nomination.

However, the FPM’s allies, the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and Amal, are expected to endorse Hariri. 

“Will the person who will have to bear the burden of being named and forming a government commit to addressing corruption and launching a reform drive?” Aoun asked. 

Lebanon has appointed two new premiers since Hariri resigned last October.

Hassan Diab, a little known academic, was named as Hariri’s replacement in December last year.

His cabinet of so-called “technocrats” resigned in the wake of the huge August 4 blast at Beirut port widely blamed on government negligence.

Lebanon’s worst peace-time disaster killed more than 200 people and wounded at least 6,500 others.

Lebanon’s ambassador to Berlin, Mustapha Adib, was then named in September but bowed out last month over the failure of political leaders to agree on a cabinet line-up.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has visited Lebanon twice since the blast, said its ruling class had “betrayed” the people by failing to form a new cabinet.

The process can take months in Lebanon, where consensus between most of its top political groups is required for major decisions.

Despite mounting international pressure, Lebanese parties are still bickering over the distribution of cabinet posts and portfolios.

Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite groups, have refused to relinquish control of the finance ministry, in what many say was behind Adib’s failure to form a government.

Aoun on Wednesday also accused unnamed officials of blocking reforms long demanded by international donors, including power sector reform and a forensic audit of the central bank.

Aoun’s ally Hezbollah is reportedly the one behind blocking the reforms demanded by international donors, while Hezbollah’s ally the Amal Movement which is headed by Speaker Nabih Berri is the one behind the blocking of the forensic audit of the central bank . Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni who represents Berri in the outgoing cabinet tried to delay the appointment of the firm that is supposed to be doing the forensic audit .

The country desperately needs cash. But foreign donors have made clear they will not bail out the heavily indebted state if it does not tackle entrenched waste and graft.

“Where are all the (steps) that were presented to the heads of (parliamentary) blocs and parties….but nothing was implemented?” Aoun asked on Wednesday.

“The silence of any official, and lack of cooperation in the forensic audit (of the central bank), prove he is a partner in corruption and waste,” Aoun added.

Senior political sources say Hariri should still get a narrow majority of votes from parliament’s lawmakers, among which the Iran-backed, Shi’ite Hezbollah and its allies hold a majority.

“I will shoulder my responsibility,” Aoun said on Wednesday. He is required to choose the candidate with greatest support. “Will the one who is designated and tasked with forming (a cabinet) commit to tackling corruption and launching a reform project?”

France has sought since August to rally Lebanese politicians to tackle the crisis but they have yet to manage the first step: agreeing a new government swiftly.

A former prime minister long aligned with Gulf states, Hariri has presented himself as the candidate to form a cabinet that can kick-start the French roadmap.

Hariri quit as PM – a post he has already held three times – when the crisis erupted last year as protests against the ruling elite gripped the country, toppling his coalition government.

Protests on eve of consultations

Rival protests were staged Wednesday evening in downtown Beirut on the eve of the binding parliamentary consultations to pick a new premier.

Fist of the revolution on fire. Voice of Beirut International pledged to pay for rebuilding the fist , the symbol of the uprising in Lebanon. Hezbollah and Amal supporters have in past torched the fist of the revolution.

As anti-government protesters marched from an area near parliament towards the Center House (Hariri’s residence) in rejection of his expected return asPM , backers of his party the al-Mustaqbal Movement staged a rival rally in the area in his support.

Security forces separated between the two sides to prevent any violence, as activists accused Hariri’s supporters of hurling stones at them.

Videos circulated on social media showed the two sides chanting rival slogans.

Al-Mustaqbal supporters were accused of torching the “fist of the revolution” statue at nearby Martyrs Square.

But Al-Mustaqbal denied the accusations and “condemned” the incident and asked security agencies to “arrest the culprits whoever they may be.” 

Hezbollah and Amal supporters have in past torched the “fist of the revolution” and attacked the revolutionaries on several occasions.

(AFP/FRANCE24/ REUTERS)

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