Lebanon PM designate bids to form crisis cabinet within two weeks


Beirut (AFP)

Lebanon's prime minister designate Mustapha Adib started talks on forming a crisis government Wednesday, under French pressure to complete the task within two weeks to move forward with desperately needed reforms.

The consultations came after a high-profile visit by French President Emmanuel Macron during which he said political leaders had agreed a road map for reform after last month's devastating blast in the port of Beirut.

"As I leave Beirut, I want to say again and with conviction: I will not abandon you," Macron said in a statement as he flew out on Wednesday.

The last government resigned in the face of public anger over the August 4 explosion that killed at least 188, wounded thousands and laid waste to entire districts of the capital.

Government formation is usually a drawn-out process in multi-confessional Lebanon where a complex political system seeks to share power between different religious groups.

But the country's deadliest peacetime disaster has created intense pressure for swift reforms to lift the country out of its worst economic crisis in decades.

Premier designate Adib started meeting parliamentary bloc leaders, as Pope Francis warned Lebanon faced "extreme danger that threatens the very existence of the country".

"Lebanon cannot be abandoned to its solitude," the pope said.

Lebanese lawmakers rushed to approve the nomination of the little-known 48-year-old diplomat on Monday just hours before the French president landed.

- 'Behaved like supreme leader' -

Under Lebanon's power-sharing system, the country's main religious communities usually agree on a new government lineup before its announcement.

Lawmaker Bahia Hariri, of the Future Movement, a party representing Sunni Muslims, requested a "government of experts".

The parliamentary leader of Shiite movement Hezbollah, Mohammad Raad, called for an "efficient, productive and cohesive government".

Lebanon's worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war has seen poverty rates double to more than half the population, sent prices soaring and trapped people's savings in the banks.

Visiting to mark the centenary of the former French protectorate, Macron strove to push for political change without being perceived as meddling in the country's affairs.

But Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar complained the French president had behaved like the "supreme leader of the Lebanese republic" on his visit.

Macron promised to host two conferences in Paris in the second half of October -- one to help drum up aid and the other to discuss progress on political reforms.

He said he would be back in Lebanon in December for another follow-up.

International donors already pledged more than 250 million euros (around $300 million) in emergency aid, during a video conference jointly organised by France and the United Nations.

Macron said on Tuesday that Adib could only "obtain legitimacy by quickly forming a mission government made up of professionals, the strongest possible team."

- 'Clock is ticking' -

Analyst Karim Bitar said that, considering the speed with which the prime minister was nominated, Lebanon could actually have a new government within the next few weeks.

"Everyone in Lebanon now realises that we no longer have the luxury of time, that the clock is ticking," he said.

"I do think that the French pressure will lead to some forms of change in the short term because Lebanon is in such a difficult financial" situation, but these risked being only "cosmetic reforms".

"But I very much doubt that they... would accept the structural reforms, the systemic reforms that Lebanon desperately needs because that would mean their own disappearance ultimately."

A protest movement, which has taken to the streets since last October demanding the ouster of the political elite, has already rejected Adib's nomination on principle.

They allege he is too close to a political class whose alleged corruption and incompetence they blame for the explosion of a large shipment of ammonium nitrate fertiliser that had been left to languish in Beirut port for years.

Hundreds protested on Tuesday evening demanding a secular state to replace the sectarian system, with clashes erupting in the evening between some demonstrators and security forces.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker, was due in Lebanon Wednesday, the State Department said.

He would "urge Lebanese leaders to implement reforms that respond to the Lebanese people's desire for transparency, accountability, and a government free of corruption."