BEIRUT — Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stepped down Thursday over what he called “key differences” with the president, deepening a political crisis that has left the Lebanese without a government for nine months even as they endure an unprecedented economic meltdown.
With no clear candidate to replace Hariri, Lebanon is likely to slide deeper into chaos and uncertainty. Prospects for forming a government to undertake desperately needed reforms and talks for a recovery package with the International Monetary Fund are now even more remote.
Poverty has soared in the past several months and dire shortages of medicines, fuel and electricity have marked what the World Bank describes as one of the world’s worst economic crisis of the past 150 years.
“I have excused myself from forming the government,” Hariri said after a 20-minute meeting with President Michel Aoun. “May God help the country.”
Later, Hariri — one of Lebanon’s most prominent Sunni Muslim leaders — told Al-Jadeed TV that he has no intention of endorsing a replacement. According to Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system, the prime minister is picked from the ranks of Sunnis.
Without Hariri’s backing, prospects of forming a government would become even more remote. Aoun said he would soon set a date for consultations with parliamentary blocs on naming a new prime minister-designate.
Hariri told the TV that when this happens, his bloc would “consult with our friends and allies and see what to do.”
After news broke of Hariri stepping down, protesters — mostly his supporters — blocked roads and set fire to tires in several parts of Beirut, decrying the deepening crisis. Troops deployed to break up a protest at the edge of Beirut, firing in the air and using armored vehicles to open roads. Protesters pelted the soldiers with stones.
The national currency, in free fall since the crisis erupted in late 2019, plunged to a new low, selling for more than 20,000 to the dollar on the black market. The Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for 30 years, has lost more than 90% of its value.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose country ruled Lebanon for about 25 years until its independence after World War II, called the failure to form a new government “yet another terrible incident” demonstrating “the inability of the Lebanese leaders to find a solution to the crisis that they have generated.”
“They totally failed to acknowledge the political and economic situation of their country,” he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York after chairing a Security Council meeting on Libya.
“We are a few days from the first anniversary of the blast in Beirut” at the port that killed and wounded thousands, Le Drian said. “It is somehow cynical destruction of the country that is ongoing, and this is just yet another step.”
But he said there are political leaders in the country, starting with president Aoun, “and it is for them to react.”
In a last-ditch effort to end the deadlock, Hariri had proposed a 24-member Cabinet to Aoun on Wednesday, and said he expected a response from the president by Thursday.
Aoun, who has blamed Hariri for the deadlock, said the premier-designate had rejected the idea of changing any names on the proposed list, indicating he already planned to step down and “was finding a pretext to justify his decision.”
International calls have mounted for Lebanese leaders to form a new government. In an unusual move, the French and U.S. ambassadors to Beirut recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to discuss Lebanon with Saudi officials. The two said Lebanon is in “desperate need” of a new, pro-reform government to lead it out of its economic and financial crisis.
But for months, the effort has been blocked by a power struggle between Hariri on one side and Aoun and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, on the other.
They locked horns over the shape of the Cabinet that will oversee critical reforms and elections scheduled for next year. Each side blamed the other for the deadlock, which has paralyzed Lebanon even as the meltdown accelerated and inflation soared.
Nabil Bou Monsef, a political commentator in An-Nahar newspaper, said that naming a new prime minister would now be even more difficult.
“We may not be able to form a government or find an alternative to Saad Hariri,” he said. “President Michel Aoun will now consider himself victorious in getting rid of Saad Hariri. But in reality, (Aoun) has opened the gates of hell for the whole country and his rule.”
Regional and international mediation has failed to bridge the differences between the Lebanese leaders. European Union Foreign policy Chief, Josep Borrell, said during a visit to Lebanon last month that a power struggle and a case of strong mistrust is at the heart of the political crisis.
The 51-year-old Hariri has served as prime minister twice, the first time from 2009-2011. His second time came in 2016, in an uneasy partnership with Aoun, an ally of the Shiite militant Hezbollah group, which is backed by Iran. At the time, Hariri had backed Aoun for president, ending nearly two years for Lebanon without a head of state, while he stepped in as premier.
In 2017, in a reflection of a feud between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran, Hariri suddenly resigned in a televised address from Riyadh and accused Hezbollah of taking Lebanon hostage. The move was seen as forced on Hariri by the Saudis, and he was quickly restored to power, but it signaled the end of his traditional alliance with the Sunni regional powerhouse.
Then, in October 2019, Hariri resigned, bowing to nationwide protests demanding major reforms. A year later, parliament named him once again to the post, months after the government of Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of the massive Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port. More than 200 people died in the blast that defaced the city and injured thousands, compounding Lebanon’s woes. An investigation continues into what caused it.
Talks with the IMF also came to a halt after Diab’s resignation. The deadlock left no one to address the spiraling crisis, rooted in years of mismanagement and corruption.
Lebanon’s economy contracted by over 20% in 2020 and poverty deepened, with more than 55% of the population living below the poverty line.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.