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Lebanon forms a national unity government

February 1, 2019

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has announced the economically beleaguered country will finally have a government to deal with pressing issues facing it. The decision was greeted with fireworks, yet the problems are immense.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Amro

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced the formation of a national unity government in Beirut Thursday. The announcement came some nine months after the country held its first parliamentary elections in nine years last May.

Gains by the Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah and losses by the country's largest Sunni party, which Hariri leads, led to the months-long tug-of-war to determine the allotment of power. The announcement was greeted with fireworks and rallies in support of the prime minister.

Read more: Lebanon's political and economic meltdown

Ultimately, the country's dire economic situation and weeks of backroom negotiations led to the breakthrough. Hariri, who enjoys Western backing, has been prime minister since 2016. The position is reserved for a Sunni. The post of president, held by Michel Aoun, is reserved for a Christian. The post of house speaker is reserved for a Shiite.

'A reflection of Lebanon's image in 2019'

Speaking with reporters, Hariri called the new government, "a reflection of Lebanon's image in 2019." He also spoke directly to the Lebanese people, saying, "We owe the Lebanese an apology for the delay, especially to the young men and women waiting for a glimmer of hope." Referring to the economy, Hariri said, "There is no time to waste."

Lebanon has been racked with debt, which is currently $84 billion (€73.4 billion), or 155 percent of GDP. Analysts say that unemployment is around 36 percent. The country has also been heavily burdened by masses of refugees fleeing the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria. Lebanon, a country of 4 million, has taken in more than one million refugees.

One bright spot for Beirut has been that foreign donors have pledged financial support of late, contributing some $11 billion in soft loans. Last week Qatar announced that it would invest $500 million in Lebanon and the country also enjoys assistance from Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese Defense Minister discusses controlling Hezbollah

Three ministries for Hezbollah

There is some concern that the United States may bristle at the fact that Hezbollah, which Washington says is a terrorist organization, is part of the government. Hezbollah was given three ministries, including the Health Ministry, the fourth largest ministry in the country.

Some see Jamil Jabbak's appointment as health minister as an effort to avoid drawing US ire. He is not a member of Hezbollah, though he is thought to have close ties to the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah. Another Hezbollah ally, Ali Hassan Khalil, will maintain his post as minister of finance.

New government, new look

The new government will also have four female cabinet members, among them Raya al-Hassan, who will be in charge of domestic security as head of the Ministry of Interior.  

President Aoun's son-in-law Gebran Bassil, a Hezbollah ally, will remain foreign minister.

Hariri's government will face major challenges in turning the country around; there will be no way to avoid cutting public spending and enacting reforms. Hariri said, "No one can put their head in the sand anymore … All the problems are known and the causes of corruption and waste and administration deficiency are also known."

The prime minister avoided one thing, nevertheless — reporters' questions about relations with Syria. He has been a critic of President Bashar Assad, whereas, Hezbollah has been a major supporter.

Lebanon: waste management crisis

js/amp (AP, dpa)