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Lebanon’s newly named prime minister-designate Najib Mikati began consultations with leading political parties Tuesday with a view to forming a long-awaited government.

The billionaire politician, already twice a prime minister, was designated on Monday, days after Saad Hariri quit the mission of forming a cabinet

The government of Hassan Diab resigned following a deadly port explosion in Beirut last August and efforts to agree on a new lineup have proved fruitless.

The institutional vacuum is holding up a potential financial rescue plan for Lebanon, which defaulted on its debt last year and has since sunk into what the World Bank has described as one of the world’s worst crises since the mid-19th century.

The designation of the 65-year-old Miqati, Lebanon’s richest man and to many a symbol of its corrupt oligarchy, was met with general skepticism.

A native of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and one of its poorest, he was accused by a state prosecutor in 2019 of illicit enrichment, a charge he denies.

– Skepticism –

“How can I trust a thief who stole from me and my children and their future?” asked 57-year-old Beirut resident Mohammed Deeb, after Mikati’s designation.

“As long as this (political) class is still in power, nothing will change.”

On Monday evening, dozens of protesters gathered outside Mikati’s Beirut home, accusing him of corruption and cronyism.

Lebanon’s former colonial ruler France and other Western governments stopped short of welcoming Mikati’s designation and simply urged him to swiftly deliver a competent lineup.

But Lebanon’s bickering politicians view Mikati as a consensus candidate, who may be capable of easing a political deadlock that has stymied efforts towards forming a government.

Mikati, the third politician in a year to attempt the job, promised his government would work on implementing a French roadmap conditioning a huge aid package on reform and transparency.

Tuesday’s meetings with the parliamentary blocs are the customary official step that follows a new prime minister’s designation but the high-stakes horse-trading has yet to begin.

If he succeeds where Hariri failed for 10 months and forms a government, Mikati will be expected to steer the country to parliamentary polls due next year.

In an interview with the An-Nahar newspaper, Mikati vowed his lineup would be “purely technical” and tasked with bridging the gap to the elections.

– Electricity crisis –

In some of his first comments after his designation, Mikati addressed the shortages that have plunged the country into darkness and further crippled its crumbling economy.

Lebanon can no longer provide mains electricity to its citizens for more than a handful of hours a day nor can it afford to buy the fuel needed to power generators.

Almost none of the international community’s demands for a broad program of reforms have so far been met.

Further stalling the bankrupt state’s recapitalization has been the government’s failure to engage the International Monetary Fund and discuss a fully-fledged rescue plan.

Until then, the monetary institution is due to send around $900 million as part of its Special Drawing Rights (SDR) aid financing scheme to help Lebanon recover.

Experts have warned however that the amount would not be enough and risked being misused by a ruling class that offers no more guarantees of transparency than before.

According to the Al-Akhbar newspaper, Mikati wants to use the IMF money to build new plants aimed at stabilizing Lebanon’s power supply.

-French reaction-

France on Monday urged the formation of a “competent and capable” government in Lebanon to carry out reforms after a year of political deadlock, shortly after Mikati was named as the country’s new PM-designate.

The foreign ministry said it was “urgent” to form such a government and implement reforms “essential to the recovery of the country,” calling on “all Lebanese leaders to act in this direction as quickly as possible.”

-Consultations-

Free Patriotic Movement chief Jebran Bassil who is the most despised politician in Lebanon and who was the main obstacle in forming the government when Hariri was PM designate declared Tuesday that FPM has decided not to participate in the government that is supposed to be formed by Mikati.

“PM-designate Mikati has been named without our approval or nomination, and this is an additional proof that we are not the majority and that we have never been part of any majority in parliament and the governments,” Bassil told reporters after the FPM parliamentary bloc met with Mikati as part of the nonbinding government formation consultations.

“We are with forming a government as soon as possible and we wish him success… and we’ll also help him,” the Bassil said

Bassil, however, noted that his bloc informed Mikati of its decision not to take part in the government.

“Accordingly, we won’t interfere at all in the formation process and this could be a helpful element,” Bassil added.

Asked whether the FPM will be represented as part of President Michel Aoun’s share, Bassil said: “When we were in the (same) government, PM Mikati believed in the idea of the full constitutional partner, and this matter is enough for us.” This was understood to mean yes , which could spell trouble for Mikati , since the aging president Michel Aoun relies a lot on Bassil in making decisions and is trying to pave the way for him to succeed him as president when his term expires next year

Mikati’s consultations also involved meetings with Speaker Nabih Berri, former PMs Hariri and Tammam Salam, Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli and the blocs of the Amal Movement, Future Movement, Hezbollah, Marada and the Progressive Socialist Party.

“The time is for action not talking,” said Salam as he left parliament.

Speaking on behalf of the Amal’s Development and Liberation bloc, MP Anwar al-Khalil called for speeding up the formation process in order to meet “the needs of the people.”

“Should formation take place, God willing in a short time, the PM must work on the implementation of all of the constitution’s articles, in addition to the reformation of the electoral law, because it has divided people into sectarian segments and it must be amended,” al-Khalil added.

MP Samir al-Jisr meanwhile spoke on behalf of the Future Movement bloc.

“We urged the PM-designate to expedite the formation process as much as possible, because the country can no longer withstand any delay and because we believe that the country’s salvation begins with the formation of a capable government,” Jisr said.

“Once it reaches an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, this government can put the country on the course of salvation, and we emphasized on what he said about the formation of a government of specialists,” Jisr added.

Asked about the interior portfolio, the MP said the bloc did not request it from the PM-designate.

“We have not asked for 24 or 12 ministers and this matter is up to him,” Jisr added.

The head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, MP Mohammed Raad, meanwhile stressed that the bloc will cooperate to “speed up the formation of the government of necessity, in order to rescue the country and reassure the Lebanese about their living, instead of leaving them prey to mafias.”

“We did not ask for anything for our bloc and we asked that the government be formed of ministers who have expertise and prudence,” Raad added.

The Iranian backed Hezbollah militant group and its ally the Amal Movement ( usually referred to as Shiite Duo) are the main backers of Mikati . Hariri’s Future parliament bloc and PSP ‘s Democratic gathering also backed Mikati but the largest 2 rival Christian parties , The Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement decided not to name anyone in the binding consultations .

The Lebanese Forces declared right from the beginning that it did not want to participate in the cabinet

AFP / FRance24/YL

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