BEIRUT: Hezbollah warned Sunday that Lebanon was headed toward a social explosion if a credible government was not formed quickly to rescue the crises-hit country, saying the escalating street protests against the deteriorating economic conditions this week served as an “alarm bell.”
The warning was issued by Hezbollah MP Hasan Ezzedine, who called on President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to put aside quotas, halt the exchange of their rhetoric over the stalled Cabinet formation process and act quickly to form an effective government.
The warning comes as the Lebanese pound continued its rapid and dramatic free-fall against the dollar over the weekend, trading at nearly 11,000 pounds on the black market for the first time in its history, raising fears of a further decline amid political uncertainty in the country and a new wave of escalation by the Free Patriotic Movement headed by MP Gebran Bassil against Hariri.
The collapsing pound, which has already lost more than 85 percent of its value since 2019, has triggered nationwide angry protests, as hundreds of disgruntled residents Sunday took to the streets in Beirut and other cities for the sixth consecutive day, blocking roads and highways across the country with burning tires. The protesters have warned of further street agitation to exert pressure on rival factions to speed up the formation of a new government to halt the country’s economic collapse.
The new government would be tasked with implementing a reform program contained in the French initiative designed to rescue Lebanon from its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Apparently addressing his words to Aoun and Hariri, whose deepening rift has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than six months, Ezzedine said: “We are in dire need for the quick formation of the government. Therefore, enough quotas and rhetoric which do not advance [Cabinet formation] but complicate things. The officials concerned with the formation must act with utmost speed within the known constitutional mechanism to bring the country out of its crisis in order to avoid aggravating it and reaching the [economic] collapse and the [social] explosion whose consequences are grave.”
“We have seen how the people have begun taking to the streets. This is an alarm bell to those concerned so that they act to work to form an effective, productive and serious government that can shoulder its responsibilities in finding solutions to the nation’s crises,” Ezzedine added, speaking at the opening of a volunteer center to face the coronavirus pandemic in the southern town of Maaroub.
Noting that the Lebanese are feeling pain and starvation as a result of the difficult economic situation and the dramatic rise of the dollar exchange rate, in addition to the health crisis caused by the alarming surge in coronavirus infections and a high mortality rate, he said: “The state is not in a good shape but in its worst shape. We are on the brink of a major [social] explosion and an [economic] collapse.”
Hezbollah’s deputy head Sheikh Naim Qassem called on Aoun and Hariri to make concessions to help resolve the Cabinet crisis. Speaking in a TV interview this week, Qassem said Hezbollah had proposed a solution based on mutual concessions with Hariri accepting to increase the number of the Cabinet members from 18 to 20 or 22 and Aoun dropping his demand for veto power.
Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar has also warned that the troubled country risked plunging into a “social explosion and security flare-up” if a new government was not formed to deal with the crippling economic crisis.
The unabated street protests have so far failed to revive talks between Aoun and Hariri on the Cabinet crisis as the two leaders stuck to their conflicting positions.
Hariri is currently on a visit to the United Arab Emirates after waiting for days for a contact from Aoun to meet to discuss with him his proposed Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists he presented to the president on Dec. 9.
Hariri Thursday said he was still waiting for Aoun’s approval of the proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms, while denying reports that he was awaiting Saudi Arabia’s consent.
Asked whether Aoun was waiting for Hariri to come up with a new Cabinet lineup after he had rejected the first one, a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Sunday: “There is nothing new concerning the Cabinet formation process pending Prime Minister Hariri’s return to Beirut. We cannot prejudge the meeting between them. The best description for the Cabinet crisis is that it is marking time.”
Hariri said last month Aoun had rejected the proposed Cabinet lineup because he wanted a share of six ministers, plus an Armenian Tashnag minister, or seven ministers, meaning a blocking third, or veto power. He also accused Aoun of blocking the formation of a new government by insisting on veto power. Hariri has vowed not to grant veto power to any party in the government.
The FPM kept up its blistering diatribe against Hariri, accusing him of deepening the Cabinet crisis, in a move reflecting spiraling tensions between Aoun and the premier-designate over the government formation.
In a statement issued after its online weekly meeting chaired by Bassil Saturday, the FPM’s politburo regretted what it called the premier-designate’s “persistent carelessness” with the fate of the people and the country.
The statement held Hariri responsible for “deepening the [Cabinet] crisis by deliberately refraining from making any effort or consultation to form the government and rejecting any activity done by those concerned [with Cabinet formation]. He only sets dates for his travel to world capitals as if the government is formed there and not in Beirut.”
Hariri’s trip to the UAE was part of his tour aimed at restoring Lebanon’s ties with Arab and friendly states. He has already visited Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and France. Media reports said Hariri planned to also visit Britain and Germany.
The FPM’s politburo accused Hariri in his statement Thursday of “fully sidelining the Christian component from the executive authority and from the confidence required from the legislative branch.”
“This would make the government lose not only its [National] Pact requirements, but its entity,” the statement said.
Former Future MP Mustafa Alloush hit back at the FPM, saying that Aoun was to blame for blocking the government formation.
“The statement issued by Bassil’s party, the unjust ruler and the obstructer, throws responsibility for blocking the formation on the shoulders of the prime minister-designate while the government is being held up by his father-in-law,” Alloush tweeted, referring to Aoun. Alloush, a member of the Future Movement’s politburo, called for the formation of a “mission government now to halt the collapse.”
Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt urged caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab to reactivate his Cabinet in order to cope with an alarming spike in coronavirus infections and a high mortality rate.
“It seems that the numbers of infections and deaths as a result of the coronavirus have increased alarmingly in view of the laxness and despite the Health Ministry’s great efforts,” Joumblatt, a harsh critic of Diab, tweeted. “Therefore, your excellency the prime minister, and away from political polemics which reached a useless limit, we ask you according to the rules of the Constitution to reactivate the government for the sake of fighting the virus for the benefit of public interest.”
Diab, whose Cabinet resigned on Aug. 10 over the deadly Beirut Port explosion, also warned Saturday that Lebanon stood on the “verge of [social] explosion after the collapse.” He said was ready to suspend his caretaker duties if that would increase pressure on politicians to form a new government, in a move that could be destructive to the already worsening economic conditions in the country.