Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s Ex-Prime Minister, Could Again Lead the Country

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Despite a public outcry for change, Lebanon’s president has tapped Saad Hariri, the embattled former prime minister who stepped down late last year amid antigovernment protests, to again try to form a government.

Mr. Hariri, who left office amid multiple crises as the country teetered on economic collapse, received the mandate after garnering enough support from Parliament on Thursday. President Michel Aoun asked Mr. Hariri to try to cobble together a governing coalition, the office of the presidency said.

There is no guarantee he will succeed. Lebanon remains mired in crisis, its economy in shambles, as the country also struggles with the fallout from an Aug. 4 explosion in the port of Beirut that killed nearly 200 people, caused billions of dollars in damage and devastated entire neighborhoods of the city.

Mr. Hariri vowed to form a cabinet of experts and technocrats “away from political parties” that will be committed to financial and economic overhauls to make the country viable again and to rebuild after the damage of the blast.

“This is the only and last opportunity for our beloved country,” he said at the presidential palace on Thursday.

Mr. Hariri’s return would represent the staying power of Lebanon’s longstanding sectarian power brokers despite the public’s desire for a change of political leadership even before the Beirut blast, which amplified those demands.

In addition to the death toll, the explosion injured hundreds and left thousands homeless as it tore through much of the city. It was trigged by a fire that ignited 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used to make fertilizer and bombs, which had been stored unsafely in the Beirut port since 2014 while some politicians wrangled in secret over what to do about it.

Many officials had long warned behind the scenes that it was dangerous, though that debate never came into the public light. And much of the country considered the devastating explosion the latest crisis resulting from poor governance.

In the wake of that outcry, the former government stepped down.

The blast — the latest crisis in a dysfunctional system that was already unraveling by the time Mr. Hariri resigned in October — drew tens of thousands to the streets calling for an end to rampant corruption. It is now up to Mr. Hariri to put together a cabinet and persuade enough government factions to join his coalition and secure a majority in Parliament.

Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, the British international policy institute, said that Mr. Hariri’s being tapped again for the role was no surprise after his successor, Hassan Diab, stepped down and the prime minister-designate, Mustapha Adib, was then unable to form a government.

“Nether Hariri nor his opponents, frankly, expected a different outcome,” she said. “It was always a matter of when rather than if.”

“The irony in Hariri’s nomination now is that it takes Lebanon back to square one,” Ms. Khatib said. “Just over a year after the start of protests in Lebanon, the country finds itself with the same prime minister who was ousted by the protesters, making the kinds of promises that he had made in the immediate aftermath of the protests and failed to implement back then.”

Despite this, Ms. Khatib said the situation had fundamentally changed since a year ago. The economic crisis has become more acute, exacerbated by the pandemic and the port blast, and that could put more pressure on the governing elite to accept a degree of compromise they previously had not.

“This of course is not going to satisfy those protesters who were hoping for a complete overhaul for the political system in Lebanon and for wide-ranging fundamental reforms,” she said.

The country has struggled to win financial assistance from the international community over the past two years, with potential donors conditioning significant aid on economic and structural reforms. Talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout came to a halt in July with virtually no progress.

President Emmanuel Macron of France has visited Lebanon twice since the Beirut explosion to push the government on structural changes to make the country viable again.

The United States has previously imposed sanctions on Lebanese businesses and officials for links to the Shiite group Hezbollah, the most powerful political faction and militia in Lebanon, and for alleged corruption. Hezbollah is backed by Iran, and the United States has designated the group a terrorist organization.

Hezbollah did not back the designation of Mr. Hariri as prime minister in consultations with the president on Thursday.

While Mr. Hariri’s opportunity to form a government comes with little promise to rescue the country from collapse, some Beirut residents say it is better to have a dysfunctional government than none at all.

Hussein Ayoub, a butcher watching the news on a television in his shop in western Beirut on Thursday, seemed resigned to whatever the political outcome might be.

“Hariri won’t be the best option,” he said. “But I would say better to be half-blind than fully blind. The country is falling below hell.”

Abed al-Kadiri, an artist who lost most of his paintings in the blast and participated in last year’s protests, said he was planning to leave the country for good.

“We are still going around the same names, the same previous leaders, the same parties that we revolted against, and they are coming back,” he said. “I’m not going to protest again, and I won’t change my plans to leave Lebanon.”

Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Megan Specia from London. Kareem Chehayeb contributed reporting from Beirut.

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