Politics

Roadblocks across Lebanon as anger rises over PM pick

By AFP

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US undersecretary of state for political affairs David Hale meets with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun in Beirut on December 20th. Hale is in Lebanon for meetings with top officials. [Anwar Amro/AFP]

Protestors blocked roads across crisis-hit Lebanon Friday (December 20th) to condemn the designation of Hizbullah-backed Hassan Diab as prime minister in a divisive vote that sparked uproar among members of the Sunni community.

The unrest came ahead of a series of planned meetings between Diab and Sunni political leaders as well as a visit by US envoy David Hale, the number three official of the US State Department.

Diab, a little-known 60-year-old engineering professor at the American University of Beirut, was designated Thursday with the endorsement of Hizbullah and its allies but without the backing of Lebanon's main Sunni bloc.

The nomination of the independent former education minister and self-styled "technocrat" ended nearly two months of political wrangling among lawmakers.

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Lebanese outgoing prime minister Saad al-Hariri meets with Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab in Beirut on December 20th. [AFP]

But it fuelled anger among Sunni Muslims, who said the prime minister-designate did not enjoy the community's backing for a post reserved for a Sunni by a power-sharing system in force since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

In the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, which was already rocked by rallies and roadblocks on Thursday, schools were closed and opponents of Diab again blockaded roads amid calls for a general strike.

Roads were also closed in the neighbouring Akkar district and several other parts of northern Lebanon, the National News Agency (NNA) reported.

Protestors also blocked major highways with burning tires and rubbish bins east and south of the capital.

'Fear for the country'

Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri -- who had in recent days been seen as the most likely candidate to head the next government -- did not initially endorse Diab as his successor, stripping him of critical Sunni political cover.

This raised fears that Diab's nomination as the leading Sunni representative will yield a lopsided government that could fuel sectarian tensions.

Observers say the rift could complicate efforts to secure the release of promised international aid required to pull Lebanon back from the brink of default.

Al-Hariri supporters held protests across Beirut on Thursday night and also gathered in front of Diab's house, prompting al-Hariri to call on them to keep off the streets.

"It is not me who will form the next government, but I am concerned because I fear for the country," al-Hariri told MTV television late Thursday.

Diab on Friday met al-Hariri and other Sunni political figures who did not endorse his nomination the previous day.

Following the meeting with al-Hariri, Diab said he wants to form "a government of independent technocrats" -- a key demand of protestors.

"Al-Hariri is giving his full support to the formation of this government," Diab said.

The Sunni community's objections to Diab's nomination fly in the face of the non-sectarian ethos of the two-month-old protest movement, which has demanded an end to the communal power-sharing system.

US visit

The international community, which has been pressuring Lebanon to accelerate the formation of a new government, has yet to respond publicly to Diab's nomination.

Hale, the US under secretary of state for political affairs, said Friday that Washington has "no role in saying who should lead and who should comprise" the next cabinet.

Picking a new premier was only the first step and agreeing on a full cabinet line-up could take time, with Diab himself giving a timeframe of four to six weeks.

Diab's endorsement by Hizbullah is unlikely to endear him to the US, which regards the Lebanese militia as an Iranian proxy and has pressed other Lebanese leaders to minimise its political influence.

Following a meeting with President Michel Aoun, Hale urged authorities to "act in the national interest, advancing reforms and forming a government that is committed to undertaking those reforms".

Hale later met with parliament speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri.

"During his visit ... he will underscore America's commitment to its partnership with the state of Lebanon," a statement from the US embassy said.

"He will encourage Lebanon's political leaders to commit to the necessary reforms that can lead to a stable, prosperous and secure country."

Political tensions have been heightened by the looming bankruptcy of the debt-burdened Lebanese state.

The Lebanese pound, officially pegged to the US dollar, has lost around 30% of its value on the black market, while companies have been paying half-salaries for the past two months and laying off staff.

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