Lebanon’s Hariri says new cabinet, IMF dialogue necessary to halt collapse

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Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said on Thursday after a meeting with President Michel Aoun that forming a government that could re-engage with the IMF was the only way to halt the country’s financial collapse.

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The meeting took place after a heated exchange on Wednesday night between the two top politicians, who have been at loggerheads for months over cabinet formation.

Aoun asked Hariri to form a new government immediately or make way for someone else in a televised speech, and Hariri hit back by telling him that if he could not approve his cabinet line-up then he should call an election.

On Thursday, Hariri’s tone was more positive after saying a further meeting was scheduled for Monday and that he saw “an opportunity to be seized”.

“The main priority of any government is to prevent the collapse that we are facing today... that we proceed to start halting the collapse with the IMF and regain the trust of the international community,” he told reporters.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday he would push for a new approach in the coming weeks on Lebanon.

Paris has spearheaded international efforts to rescue the former French protectorate from its deepest crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, but has failed so far to persuade squabbling politicians to adopt a reform roadmap and form a new government to unlock international aid.

“The time of the test of responsibility is coming to an end and there will be a need in the coming weeks, in a very clear manner, change approach and the methods because we can’t leave the Lebanese people since last August in the situation in which they are,” Macron said.

Lebanon’s talks with the IMF stalled last year over a row among Lebanese government officials, bankers and political parties over vast financial losses.

The Lebanese pound has sunk by 90 percent in the country’s worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. It has plunged many into poverty and endangered imports as dollars grow scarce.

Politicians have since late 2019 failed to agree a rescue plan to unlock foreign cash which Lebanon desperately needs.

An anti-government demonstrator waves the national flag as they block the street, with burning garbage dumpsters, in front of Lebanon's central bank in the capital Beirut on March 16, 2021. (AFP)
An anti-government demonstrator waves the national flag as they block the street, with burning garbage dumpsters, in front of Lebanon's central bank in the capital Beirut on March 16, 2021. (AFP)

“We are really looking at the abyss, seeing it very clearly, and I think it’s either now or never,” Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said, alluding to the urgency of forming a new government able to make reforms.

He added that major political parties, including Aoun’s ally, the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, were re-evaluating their positions as delays worsen the economy’s free-fall and unrest grows.

A French diplomat said on Wednesday that France, which has led aid efforts to its former colony, and its partners will seek to ramp up pressure on Lebanese politicians in the coming months.

Strikes and closures

The currency has crashed so fast in recent weeks, losing a third of its value, that grocery shops closed on Wednesday and bakeries cautioned they may have to follow suit.

Many pharmacies shut their doors on Thursday and flashed neon strike signs, the latest sector of the economy to voice frustration.

Ali Obaid, a Beirut pharmacist, said he could no longer keep up with expenses. “Pharmacies will close permanently if this continues,” he said.

Comments that subsidies - including on fuel, wheat and medicine - may soon end have also triggered panic buying.

Cars lined up outside gas stations earlier this week, and scenes of brawls over subsidized goods at supermarkets have heightened fears among Lebanese over their most basic needs.

The sharp descent of the pound sent protesters into the streets this month, blocking roads in anger at an entrenched political elite that has dominated since the civil war.

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