Hezbollah-backed PM-designate faces backlash from Sunnis

“Sunnis feel that they have been humiliated and marginalised by Diab’s appointment,” says Johnny Mounayar.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Daunting task. Lebanese Incumbent Prime Minister Saad Hariri (L) meets with Lebanese newly-designated Prime Minister, Hassan Diab at the Governmental Palace, in Beirut, December 20. (DPA)
Daunting task. Lebanese Incumbent Prime Minister Saad Hariri (L) meets with Lebanese newly-designated Prime Minister, Hassan Diab at the Governmental Palace, in Beirut, December 20. (DPA)

BEIRUT - The nomination of Hezbollah-backed Hassan Diab as prime minister-designate to form Lebanon’s so-called “salvation government” will unlikely help the debt-ridden country to overcome its worst socio-economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Diab’s designation, which came after caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri pulled out of the race, was endorsed by a weak majority in parliament comprising Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies, Shia Amal Movement and President Michel Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement.

Hariri’s Future Movement bloc did not nominate a candidate in the much-delayed consultations with the president. Other blocs nominated former Ambassador to the United Nations Nawaf Salam.

Analysts said Diab’s failure to secure a consensus, especially from his Sunni community at exceptionally difficult times, makes it more complicated for him to form an inclusive government.

“Today we have a mobilisation of the Sunni community,” said political analyst Johnny Mounayar. “Whether they like Saad Hariri or not, the Sunnis feel that they have been humiliated and marginalised by Diab’s appointment. The mood is very tense and might be a prelude to Sunni-Shia friction.”

Under Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system the prime minister should come from the Sunni community and is usually backed by the community’s main leaders.

“Diab has been stamped in the Western media as Hezbollah’s candidate and his government, regardless of how many ‘technocrats’ it will include, will be regarded as a Hezbollah-dominated administration,” Mounayar said.

“A government dominated by Hezbollah, which has been targeted by increasingly biting US sanctions, is unlikely to secure billions of dollars in frozen aid for which Lebanon is in bad need.”

“We are obviously heading towards a polarised government which will not gain any international support because the US-Iran talks have not matured yet and Lebanon will be part of any US-Iran deal. The West wants to make Iran pay a price in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria,” Mounayar added.

Diab, a 60-year-old professor at American University of Beirut largely unknown to the public, served as minister of education from 2011-14 in a government formed after Hezbollah brought down a previous Hariri cabinet.

Following Diab’s appointment, protesters gathered in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, the epicentre of the protests, and cut off roads. They rejected Diab and cast him as part of the old class of politicians they are revolting against.

“I see the country is going to waste. With this kind of government, no one will deal with it, no Arab, no Europe and no US,” Saeb Hujrat, a protester in the square, told the Associated Press.

In his first public address, Diab, who described himself as an “independent,” said he would work quickly to form a government in consultations with all political parties and representatives of the protest movement.

He said he is committed to a reform plan and described the current situation as “critical and sensitive” requiring exceptional efforts and collaboration.

A daunting task awaits Diab and his efforts to form a government will almost certainly hit snags in the deeply divided country, even if Hezbollah and its allies sought to facilitate his mission, journalist Amin Kammourieh said.

“His (Diab’s) appointment could be a test,” Kammourieh said. “If (economic and political) pressures at home and from the international community exacerbated, Hezbollah and its allies might reconsider Diab’s eligibility or they would go for a unilateral government and take all the challenges that come with it.”

Visiting US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale encouraged Lebanese politicians to commit to the necessary reforms that can lead to a stable, prosperous and secure country.

“It’s time to put aside partisan interests and act in the national interest,” Hale said, adding the 2-month-old anti-government protests reflected the Lebanese people’s “longstanding and legitimate demands for economic and institutional reform, better governance and an end to endemic corruption.”

Demonstrators of all sectarian backgrounds have been in the streets every day since October 17 to demand the removal of the entire political leadership, seen as corrupt and incompetent.

Pierre Issa, secretary-general of the National Bloc party, which is participating in the protest movement, said protesters are mostly unhappy with Diab’s appointment and would continue demonstrating.

“We fear Diab might form a cosmetic cabinet of experts who are effectively controlled by political parties and this won’t solve the crisis,” Issa said.