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New Lebanon PM says top priority is the nation’s ‘strangling’ economic crisis

Fires rage as Lebanon forces clash with anti-government protesters
WATCH: Fires rage as Lebanon forces clash with anti-government protesters

Lebanon’s new prime minister held consultations Saturday with parliamentary blocs in which they discussed the shape of the future government and said afterwards that legislators all had one concern: To get the country out of its “strangling” economic crisis.

Hassan Diab, a university professor and former education minister, will have to steer Lebanon out of its worst economic and financial crisis in decades. He’s also taking office against the backdrop of ongoing nationwide protests against the country’s ruling elite.

“Lebanon is in the intensive care unit and needs efforts” by all sides, from political groups to protesters, Diab said.

READ MORE: Protest camps in Lebanon attacked by Hezbollah supporters

Consultations began a day after scuffles broke out in Beirut and other areas between supporters of outgoing prime minister Saad Hariri and Lebanese troops and riot police. The ex-premier’s supporters were protesting Diab’s nomination. At least seven soldiers were injured.

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Diab told reporters later that all members of parliament encouraged him to form a Cabinet “as soon as possible.” Cabinets usually take months to form in Lebanon because of bargaining between rival groups.

Diab said he hopes to form a government of about 20 ministers made up of independents and technocrats within few weeks. “It’s time to work and we ask God to make us successful.”

He added that the situation in Lebanon cannot stand any delays amid its worst economic and financial crisis since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Fires ignited in Lebanon’s streets after new PM appointed to form government
Fires ignited in Lebanon’s streets after new PM appointed to form government

Lebanese banks have imposed unprecedented capital controls in recent weeks. Thousands have lost their jobs and the economy is expected to contract in 2020.

Diab began his meetings Saturday at Parliament with Speaker Nabih Berri, then held talks with former prime ministers, including caretaker premier Hariri. He later met with blocs at the legislature.

Militant Hezbollah and its allies had previously insisted that a new government consist of politicians and experts but on Saturday, Diab said “all parties agree with me regarding a government made up of independents and experts, including Hezbollah.”

Legislator Paula Yacoubian, who backs the protest movement, said Diab told her “the government will be fully made up of independents and that he will step down if there is going to be members of the state’s political parties.”

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READ MORE: Lebanon postpones talks to name new prime minister after violent weekend

She added: “I heard very nice talk similar to what the people have been demanding.”

The protesters have been demanding a government that does not include members of political parties whom they blame for widespread corruption. Diab said he will meet with the protesters in the coming days without elaborating.

Earlier on Saturday, Hariri cautioned supporters after meeting Diab against violent protests, saying: “The army is ours and police forces are for all Lebanese.”

Shortly before sunset Saturday, scores of protesters including Hariri supporters, closed two major intersections in Beirut demanding that Diab step aside, saying he failed to win wide support from Sunni legislators. Saturday’s protests were peaceful unlike those of the night before when stones and firecrackers were hurled at security forces.

Lebanon police use tear gas against protesters demonstrating against security crackdown
Lebanon police use tear gas against protesters demonstrating against security crackdown

The new prime minister won a majority of lawmakers’ votes after receiving backing from powerful Hezbollah and its allies, which have a majority of seats in parliament.

However, he lacks the support of major Sunni figures, including the largest Sunni party headed by Hariri. That’s particularly problematic for Diab, who, as a Sunni, doesn’t have the backing of his own community. And under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing agreement, the prime minister must be Sunni.

The head of Hezbollah’s 12-member bloc, Mohammad Raad, said the group wants a government that preserves what the Lebanese have achieved in “victories during the confrontation with the Israeli enemy and to maintain our national sovereignty, our maritime (oil and gas) wealth and land and to prevent the enemy from undermining its sovereignty and the national dignity.”

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A lawmaker from the bloc led by the Shiite Amal group — headed by parliament speaker Berri — said the incoming government should focus on fighting corruption.

READ MORE: United Nations tells Lebanon no aid until it forms a new government

“It should be an emergency government that works on solving the economic, financial, social and banking crisis,” said Anwar al-Khalil after the meeting with Diab.

Samir al-Jisr of Hariri’s bloc said they will not take part in Diab’s government.

Hezbollah’s ally, Gebran Bassil, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, said the future government “is not Hezbollah’s Cabinet but of all Lebanese and it is not against anyone.”

Lebanon protests: Younger generation ditches differences to target ‘unjust’ system
Lebanon protests: Younger generation ditches differences to target ‘unjust’ system

Michel Moawad, a harsh critic of the militant group, said Diab told him the new government will not be controlled by “Hezbollah and will not be confrontational.”

Hezbollah had backed Hariri for prime minister from the start, but the group differed with him over the shape of the new government.

Lebanon’s sustained, leaderless protests erupted in mid-October, and forced Hariri’s resignation within days. But politicians were later unable to agree on a new prime minister. The ongoing protests and paralysis have worsened the economic crisis.