Lebanon names Saad Hariri as prime minister, almost one year after he resigned
By Sarah Dadouch,
Hussein Malla AP
BEIRUT — Lebanon named Saad Hariri as its prime minister on Thursday, almost exactly a year after he resigned from the same post following popular protests that called for the expulsion of the country’s entire political class.
His designation came amid one of Lebanon’s most tumultuous periods: the spread of coronavirus and government-enforced lockdowns further exacerbating a titanic economic struggle — but both crises briefly paled in comparison to a massive blast that tore through the capital Beirut on Aug. 4, killing nearly 200 and destroying much of the city.
In his brief speech, Hariri addressed the Lebanese “who are suffering difficulties to the point of desperation,” and emphasized the need to rebuild Beirut after the blast, and follow a French initiative to appoint a cabinet of specialists to address the country’s crises.
As parliamentarians announced their choices on Thursday, many emphasized the unprecedented times Lebanon is going through. The memory of the blast, which shook the country both literally and figuratively, is present in everyday life: shattered glass still litters many alleyways. Bent steel and concrete husks stand where buildings used to be. Residents jump at loud noises and the roar of planes. The destruction across most of the city is also constant reminder that the country is struggling to scrounge for funds to pay for reconstruction.
Hassan Diab, who was designated prime minister in January after Hariri’s resignation in October, resigned a week after the explosion amid public uproar over official negligence that left 2,750 tons of volatile ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port for six years, despite repeated warnings about safety concerns. Diab’s 10-month tenure also witnessed a severe devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which hit 10,000 pounds to the dollar in July — after a decades-long peg of 1,500 to the dollar.
Lebanon has entered a period of hyperinflation, which stood at 401 percent last month according to estimates by Steve Hanke, an applied economics professor at Johns Hopkins University. Staple goods prices shot up: bread, fruits, and vegetables doubled last month in comparison to last year. The price of meat and poultry has more than doubled, according to Lebanon’s Consultation and Research Institute.
Talks with the International Monetary Fund to reach a bailout stalled after months of resignations by Lebanese negotiators, who expressed frustration with the ruling elite and the lack of transparency. Before the Beirut blast, the main worry was that the central bank’s dollar deposits would run out, and staples like wheat and fuel would no longer be subsidized.
Hariri’s return as prime minister brings Lebanon back full circle, fueling anger at a static political system that has been controlled by the same families for decades. On Wednesday, crowds protested Hariri’s expected designation, which prompted his supporters to have a march of their own and burn down a large 36-foot tall fist labeled “Revolution,” which had become a symbol for the protesters.
The Revolution fist, symbol of Lebanons October 2019 uprising, stands in the capital Beirut’s central Martyr’s square on October 22, 2020, after it was replaced with a cover made of canvas, a day following the burning down of the original wooden structure.
Hariri is the son of the late Rafic Hariri, who served as prime minister twice before his assassination in 2005.
This will be the younger Hariri’s third term as prime minister: his first ended in 2011 when his government was toppled by Iran-allied Hezbollah, both a militant group and a political party, when the group’s ministers and its allies resigned.
Hariri’s second term ended with his resignation on Oct. 29, 2019 after 10 days of protests that filled the streets, blocked roads and paralyzed the country. “I have reached a dead end, and we need a big shock to counter this crisis,” he said then.
The protests began after a tax on Internet phone calls and an increase in the value-added tax were proposed, but swelled in numbers after a minister’s bodyguards got into physical altercations with protesters and shot guns into the air to disperse the crowd. Thousands went to the streets that night to protest the dire economic situation, the lack of services, governmental ineptitude and rampant corruption.
A protester holds the Lebanese flag and shouts slogans denouncing the naming of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as a potential candidate for prime minister in downtown Beirut, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.
Nader Durgham in Beirut contributed to this report.