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Protesters wanted change but Lebanon's elite picks veteran Saad Hariri to lead crisis-wracked country

Posted October 22, 2020 6:36 a.m. EDT

— Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was toppled in a popular uprising nearly one year ago, has been tasked with forming the country's next government.

He faces the grueling task of forming a cabinet in a country still reeling from the aftermath of a massive explosion that ripped through the capital in August. The country is mired in a financial meltdown, political infighting and widespread anger at Beirut's ruling elite.

If Hariri succeeds in creating the next government, he will be taking on the premiership for a fourth time. A staple of the country's political class, Hariri is the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and is the most high-profile Sunni Muslim political leader in Lebanon.

Lebanon's political system allots the post of prime minister to a Sunni Muslim, and Hariri's return will be met with dismay by many anti-establishment protesters who have called for an end to the country's power-sharing system.

Hariri is perhaps best-known internationally for his shock resignation of the premiership in 2017 during a trip to Saudi Arabia. His resignation was widely believed to have been coerced by Saudi Arabia, where he was reportedly detained upon arrival in Riyadh. Hariri and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly denied those claims, and weeks later, he recanted his resignation.

The former prime minister, who shunned the premiership for most of the last year after stepping down, has vowed to push through reforms endorsed by the international community and dictated by French President Emmanuel Macron during his two visits to Beirut in recent months.

Macron has sought to cobble together a political resolution to Lebanon's crises in an effort to stave off state collapse in the wake of an explosion at Beirut's port that devastated the city and killed 203 people. He has raised over $200 million in an international conference to aid Lebanon, and has conditioned future financial support on a roadmap of reforms, known in Lebanon as "the French initiative."

Rival political groups in Lebanon have endorsed Macron's roadmap, but political wrangling over the shape of Lebanon's next government has continued over the last two months unabated.

Hariri would take over from caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a technocrat brought to power by a Hezbollah-backed parliamentary majority. Diab resigned about a week after the port explosion, heeding the calls of angry protesters. The blast has been blamed on government neglect of a warehouse containing hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, though an investigation into the incident has been criticized by rights groups for a lack of transparency and for failing to produce results.

After Diab resigned, the Hariri-backed diplomat Mustapha Adib was designated prime minister, but later stepped down after failing to break a political stalemate over the formation of a cabinet. Macron has publicly berated Lebanon's ruling elite, accusing the political class of "collective betrayal."

It is unclear if Hariri has already made headway in negotiations over the government formation, but the new PM-designate has repeatedly said he is favor of a technocratic rescue government, an idea that his political opponents have repeatedly rejected.

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