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Lebanon's new cabinet holds first meeting amid protests and economic ‘catastrophe’

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new cabinet at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon on January 22, 2020.
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new cabinet at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon on January 22, 2020. © Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS

Lebanon's new cabinet held its first meeting on Wednesday, bearing a message of support from the United Nations as ministers begin the urgent task of addressing an economic “catastrophe”, as Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the country’s situation.

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Debt-ridden Lebanon faces an economic "catastrophe", Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Wednesday as his newly unveiled cabinet met for the first time. "Today we are in a financial, economic and social dead-end," he said in remarks read by a government official after the new cabinet's inaugural meeting in Beirut.

President Michel Aoun said the new government must tackle the country's economic woes, win back international confidence and gain the trust of the Lebanese. "Your mission is delicate," the president's office cited him as saying at the same meeting, where he presided. He also said the government would have to work to make up for lost time.

Diab also said his new government's economic and financial approach would be "completely different" than past governments. But he also said that dismissing Lebanon's central bank governor, Riad Salameh, was "currently out of the question".

The prime minister told reporters he had met with a number of foreign ambassadors who had "all expressed readiness to cooperate".

A few moments later, French President Emmanuel Macron, who was visiting Jerusalem and speaking alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, stated that France "will do everything, during this deep crisis that [Lebanon is] going through, to help...our Lebanese friends."

Lebanon's government under Diab was formed on Tuesday after the Iranian-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah and its allies agreed on a cabinet of 20 specialists.

UN Secretary-General voices support

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will work with Diab to support the reform agenda, Guterres's spokesman said in a statement, reiterating the UN's commitment to strengthening Lebanon's sovereignty, stability and political independence.

The heavily indebted state has been without effective government since Saad Hariri, Lebanon's main Sunni leader and a traditional ally of the West and Gulf Arab states, quit as premier in October following widespread protests against politicians who have led Lebanon into its worst crisis since the 1975-90 war.

Diab was nominated by Hezbollah and its allies last month. Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist group by the United States.

New Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said on Tuesday that Lebanon needed foreign aid to save it. He described forthcoming foreign currency sovereign debt maturities as "a fireball".

Protesters took to the streets of Beirut as the new government was announced and closed roads in several cities using tyres and other makeshift barriers. The protests came after a weekend marked by unprecedented violence, as at least 530 people were injured in clashes between protesters and security forces.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP and AFP)

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