Hezbollah-backed Candidate Tapped as Lebanon's New PM in Bid to End Deadlock

President nominates Hassan Diab after Hariri withdrew his candidacy following nationwide protests, underlining Iran's influence in the country

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with Lebanese newly-assigned Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, right, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, December 19, 2019.
Hussein Malla/AP

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun has officially designated Hezbollah-backed candidate Hassan Diab as the country's new prime minister in a televised speech on Thursday

Diab, a little-known academic and former education minister,vowed to form a government quickly that works to pull the country out of economic crisis and reassures people who have protested against the political class for two months. "All our efforts must now focus on stopping the collapse and restoring confidence," he said from the presidential palace.

President Michel Aoun hosted consultations on Thursday with deputies to pick the new premier, who had to be a Sunni Muslim under the country's sectarian power-sharing system. Aoun was required to designate the candidate with the most support from Lebanon's 128 MPs.

Lebanese army soldiers standing guard as students take part in a protest in the southern city of Sidon, Lebanon, November 5, 2019.
ALI HASHISHO/REUTERS

The nomination sets the stage for the formation of a cabinet that excludes allies of the United States and Sunni Gulf Arab countries while underlining the influence of Iran’s friends in Lebanon.

Lebanon, wrestling with the worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, has been in dire need of a new government since outgoing Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on October 29, prompted by protests against the ruling elite.

But efforts to agree a new premier and government have been mired in divisions that reflect tensions between Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, and the heavily armed Hezbollah, which is under U.S. sanctions and listed as a terrorist group by Washington.

Hariri had been expected to be nominated prime minister in Thursday's consultation but withdrew his candidacy on Wednesday night.

He had said he would only return as prime minister of a government of specialists which he believed would be able to secure Western support and satisfy protesters who have been demonstrating against rampant state corruption.

President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally who has also been at political loggerheads with Hariri, began consultations on Thursday with deputies to designate the new premier.

While Diab's candidacy did secure enough votes in parliament, it failed to secure the backing of Hariri, who did not name anyone for the position.

Elie Ferzli, the deputy parliament speaker and a political ally of Hezbollah, was the first lawmaker to declare support for Diab, an engineer and academic at the American University of Beirut.

But while Ferzli said Diab's nomination took "into account some of the basic prerequisites wanted by the people", calling him an "academic and person of integrity", former prime minister Najib Mikati said he was not up to the job.

"I don't want to deflate the hopes of Lebanese but I am sceptical that any of the proposed names could shoulder (the responsibility) during this period," Mikati, who had backed Hariri for the post, said.

Diab served as education minister in one of Mikati's governments.

After announcing Hezbollah's support for Diab, Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Raad said the group had extended the hand of cooperation "for the sake of the country".

Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said political tensions could lead to unrest between Shi'ite supporters of Hezbollah and Amal on the one hand, and Sunni supporters of Hariri on the other.

"The lack of Hariri support means that it is a polarizing government, which means it is less likely they will see (foreign) support," he said.