December 20, 2019 / 3:23 PM / a month ago

Lebanon PM designate says he wants government soon, will no be under Hezbollah sway

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s prime minister designate said he would work to form a government within six weeks to help pull the country out of a deepening economic crisis, dismissing accusations he would be dominated by the powerful Iranian backed-Hezbollah movement.

Hassan Diab talks to the media after being named Lebanon's new prime minister, at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Hassan Diab, an academic and former education minister, was designated on Thursday as the next prime minister with the support of the heavily armed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most influential group, and its allies.

“Previous governments in the last decade took a year to form and I seek to form a government in the next four weeks or a period that does not exceed six weeks,” Diab said in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

On Friday night, troops fired tear gas in Beirut to disperse hundreds of youths who were protesting against Diab’s designation, witnesses said.

The protesters threw rocks and fireworks at the soldiers in clashes in the streets of the Corniche al Mazzraa district. Many of the youths set tyres and fires broke out in several streets.

The designation set the stage for a cabinet without allies of the United States and Sunni Gulf Arab states while underlining the sway of Iran’s friends. The move will complicate efforts to secure Western financial aid, analysts say.

Lebanon, in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, has been seeking a new government since Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Oct. 29 in response to protests against a ruling elite seen as venal and incompetent.

Efforts to reach a deal on a new premier have been hurt by rifts that reflect tensions between Hariri, who is aligned with the West and Gulf Arab states, and Hezbollah. Washington sees Hezbollah as a terrorist group and has imposed sanctions on it.

Hariri was quoted in an interview with Lebanon’s MTV channel as saying “one has to brace for the worst.”

Senior U.S. State Department official David Hale, who arrived on Friday to underline Washington’s support for Lebanon’s stability, urged the bickering political leaders to implement speedy economic reforms.

“PARTISAN INTERESTS”

“It’s time to put aside partisan interests and act in the national interest, advancing reforms and form a government committed to undertaking these reforms and capable of doing so,” said Hale said after meeting President Michel Aoun.

He later met parliament speaker Nabih Berri and had lunch with Hariri.

Washington, which Hezbollah accuses of inciting some protesters, was not meddling in Lebanon’s politics, Hale said.

Aoun told Hale the new government had “many tasks ahead” of it and said peaceful protesters were being protected by the army to safeguard freedom of speech.

Since the protests broke out, there have been several attacks by supporters of Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal against anti-government demonstrators in a square in Beirut. Security forces have intervened to prevent the attacks from escalating amid fears of wider clashes.

Analysts say Diab faced obstacles due to his reliance on Hezbollah’s support and a lack of real support from his Sunni sect or the protest movement.

“Diab is already presented as a pro-Hezbollah PM which kills any possibility to get the international financial aid which is the only chance to get out of the crisis,” said Sami Nader, head of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

Diab, who failed to win’s Hariri’s support under a sectarian political system that leaves the premiership to a Sunni Muslim, dismissed accusations that the government would be under Hezbollah’s thumb. Hariri is Lebanon’s main Sunni politician.

“This matter is silly because the new government will not be a government of a political grouping chosen from here or there,” Diab added.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Dala Osseiran, Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Editing by David Clarke, William Maclean and Angus MacSwan

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