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Fresh Protests Blast Lebanon's New Government

By Dale Gavlak January 22, 2020

Protesters again took to Lebanon's streets Wednesday, saying a newly-formed cabinet announced late Tuesday failed to match their calls for an administration headed by technocrats, as a deepening economic crisis engulfs the tiny Mediterranean country.

Lebanon's prime minister, Hassan Diab, formed his government after the Shi'ite militia group Hezbollah and its allies agreed on a cabinet that must urgently address the heavily indebted state. Diab, a 60-year-old professor at the American University of Beirut, now heads a slimmed down cabinet of 20 members, mostly specialists backed by political parties, but without the participation of major Lebanese political parties that enjoy Western support.

Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut downplayed a close connection between Hezbollah and Diab, saying the new government faces an immediate challenge of tackling a liquidity crunch that has hit the local lira currency, driving banks to impose capital controls and fueling inflation.

"Diab was picked by the coalition," Hage Ali said. "To a large extent, the international community is waiting to see what comes out of this government."

Burdened with a public debt of about 150% of its GDP, Lebanon won pledges exceeding $11 billion at an international conference in April 2018 conditioned on reforms that it has so far failed to implement.

Hage Ali told VOA that perilous financial deadlines are looming for Lebanon.

"The first one is in a month or so. ... Clearly, there has to be some discussion on how to reschedule this payment without affecting the country's financial standing," he said. "And I think the international position is waiting and seeing what comes out of this government, rather than rushing to condemn it."

New Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni says Lebanon needs foreign aid to save it, and calls the upcoming repayment deadline "a fireball."

Protesters from across Lebanon and its religious divides have demanded sweeping reforms, with a cabinet of independent technocrats as a first step to root out endemic government corruption.

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