Day After Resigning, Hariri Says Ready to Be Lebanese PM Again, Official Says

Saad al-Hariri wants to lead new cabinet following unprecedented anti-government protests, according to a senior official

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks during a news conference after a cabinet session at the Baabda palace, Lebanon October 21, 2019.
\ MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

Saad al-Hariri is ready to return as prime minister of a new Lebanese government, a senior official familiar with his thinking said, on condition it includes technocrats and can quickly implement reforms to stave off economic collapse.

Hariri's resignation on Tuesday left a political vacuum at a moment of acute crisis, with reforms urgently needed to ward off even deeper financial problems in one of the world's most heavily indebted states.

After two weeks of anti-government protests largely subsided following Hariri's announcement, main roads in Lebanon reopened on Wednesday as security forces sought to restore a semblance of normality.

Banks remained closed for an 11th working day but the Association of Lebanese Banks said they would resume normal operations and receive customers on Friday.

Hariri resigned after massive protests against the political elite, accused by demonstrators of overseeing rampant state corruption, saying he had hit a "dead end" in trying to resolve the crisis.

The senior official, who declined to be identified, said any new cabinet led by Hariri should not include a group of top-tier politicians who were in the outgoing coalition government, without naming them.

The cabinet comprised top representatives of most of Lebanon's sectarian parties, among them foreign minister Gebran Bassil of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, a prominent target of protesters.

Bassil is a political ally of the powerful Iranian-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which had opposed the government's resignation and has yet to comment on the departure of Hariri, a long-time opponent of the group.

The crisis has weighed on the country's sovereign debt and increased pressure on the Lebanese pound, which has been weakening on the parallel market below the official rate of 1,507.5 to the U.S. dollar. Prices in the black market for dollars varied from 1,750 to 1,850 pounds on Wednesday.

The banks had publicly raised security fears as the reason for their closure. Bankers and analysts have also cited concern about a rush by savers to withdraw their savings or transfer them abroad once the banks reopen.

SCHOOLS AND UNIVERSITIES

The education minister called on schools and universities to reopen on Thursday.

President Michel Aoun formally asked Hariri on Wednesday to continue in a caretaker role until a new cabinet is formed, as required by Lebanon's system of government.

There is no obvious alternative to Hariri as prime minister, a post reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system.

Hariri, Lebanon's leading Sunni politician, is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab support for Lebanon, which is in dire need of external financial support to revive its economy and boost its foreign exchange reserves.

Early on Wednesday, troops cleared one major route north of Beirut after briefly scuffling with demonstrators.

The Ring Bridge in the centre of the capital opened after negotiations with some protesters who did not want to leave, saying they wanted more of the authorities to resign. Many protesters stayed on, but did not block the whole road.

In a statement, the army command said people had a right to protest, but that applied "in public squares only".

The main protest camp in a square in the centre of the capital was quiet but was closed to traffic by security forces.

Hariri made his resignation speech on Tuesday after a crowd loyal to Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a camp in central Beirut.

The strife was the most serious on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies at the time.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the formation of a new government responsive to the needs of the people. "The Lebanese people want an efficient and effective government, economic reform, and an end to endemic corruption," he said.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of stoking unrest in Lebanon and urged protesters to seek changes in a lawful way. Iran is a major backer of Hezbollah.

Aoun said recent events had "opened the door to significant reform," but people would return to the streets if obstacles were placed in the way of the formation of a "clean government".