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Najib Mikati remains Lebanon PM, but difficult times ahead

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Najib Mikati remains Lebanon PM, but difficult times ahead
Najib Mikati will again serve as Lebanon's prime minister, tasked with forming a new government amid a deep financial crisis for the country. File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 23 (UPI) -- Najib Mikati, chosen Thursday to remain as Lebanese prime minister, faces the difficult task of forming a new government and slowing the country's collapse until the election of a new president in October, analysts said.

Mikati, a 66-year-old politician and wealthy businessman who has served as caretaker premier since the May 16 parliamentary elections, called on all parties to put "our differences aside and cooperate to save our country."

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"I am extending my hand to all without exception with a good will...There is still an opportunity and we are capable of salvaging the country," he said shortly after he was named prime minister by 54 legislators of the new 128-member parliament.

Mikati warned that the crisis-ridden country has "no more the luxury of losing time...we have lost numerous opportunities to receive support from friendly countries."

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He urged action to adopt necessary reforms to complete negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

"We are facing the challenge of total collapse or gradual rescue...I repeat here today, without an agreement with the IMF, there will be no chance to save" the country, Mikati said.

Lebanon has been holding talks with the IMF, but only in April reached a staff-level agreement on an economic reform plan that could unlock around $3 billion of funding over several years. However, the program is contingent on Lebanon undertaking several critical reforms and on IMF management and executive board approval.

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Concluding a deal with the IMF requires a new government to be in place, which Mikati might not be able to achieve.

"He was named prime minister, but I doubt he would be able to form a cabinet," Sami Nader, an economist and director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs in Beirut, told UPI. "With the presidential elections nearing, it is all interconnected...and that would need a comprehensive settlement that would take some time."

In recent years, it has become the norm for any new government to take months to see light because of political bickering and disputes among leaders.

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The new cabinet will serve until President Michel Aoun's six-year term ends in October.

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"It is a disruptive period and the level of risk is very high because of the economic collapse," Nader said. "We are in a free fall and still we didn't hit the button."

He emphasized that economic conditions are further deteriorating and an agreement with the IMF is "the only exit out of the crisis, but I don't see how we will do that."

Lebanon will be "on hold" until the election of a new president based on a "new package deal" reached by the country's political leaders and the blessing of "outside forces," Nader said.

Lebanon has been facing a compounded crisis since October 2019 that has resulted in soaring poverty and unemployment, with the Lebanese pound losing 90% of its value and the country's sectors collapsing one after the other. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 that killed 218 people and destroyed large parts of the city only worsened the crisis.

Gebran Bassil, Free Patriotic Movement leader and son-in-law of Aoun, did not name Mikati, arguing that it will be difficult to form a new cabinet "under such a short time," as well as introduce essential reforms and achieve a recovery plan to save the crisis-ridden country.

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Rosana Bou Monsef, a political analyst and columnist at the leading An Nahar newspaper, however, sees a chance to adopt such reforms in the coming two months by the parliament before it goes in session to elect a new president.

"It will not be difficult," Bou Monsef told UPI. "However, the main challenge is to hold the presidential elections on time...and to agree on a suitable candidate."

She referred to efforts by "outside powers" to make this happen, saying that this time the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah will not be able to impose a president like it did with Aoun in 2016 "because it can't bear the responsibility of the country's collapse."

Until then, the country will continue to face financial deterioration, with an exhausted population struggling with electricity cuts, shortages in bread and medicines.

It is the fourth time Mikati, a Sunni Muslim who hails from the northern city of Tripoli, has been tapped as prime minister since 2011.

He mainly secured enough votes in Thursday's parliamentary consultations due to the representatives of Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, the Amal movement, as well as some other Sunni and Christian supporters.

Some 25 parliamentarians, mostly from opposition parties and "forces of change," nominated Nawaf Salam, the former ambassador and permanent representative of Lebanon to the United Nations who has served as a judge on the International Court of Justice in Holland since 2018.

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While one legislator named former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who quit politics months ago, to the post, 46 parliamentarians, including the FPM, abstained from nominating any candidate.

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