Lebanon’s Divide Flares Anew With Tycoon’s Pick for Premier

(Bloomberg) -- The candidacy of a wealthy Lebanese businessman to become the country’s new premier is reinforcing the very rift that’s separated demonstrators and the political elites they deem corrupt over weeks of protests.

Mohammad Safadi, who’s also a former finance minister, has the backing of Lebanon’s major political parties after a meeting late on Thursday, but it’s a choice that generated an immediate backlash from anti-government demonstrators pressing for deeper reform. Involved in a coastal development that’s provoked protests, Safadi has been a member in various governments for over a decade, hardly a harbinger of the change demanded during the unrest.

The nomination “shows once again the audacity of the political establishment in dismissing peoples’ voices,” Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, said on Twitter.

Lebanon, one of the world’s most indebted nations, has been without a government since Saad Hariri resigned late last month as protesters lashed out over alleged corruption and mismanagement that’s pushed the economy to the verge of bankruptcy.

It’s not only on the streets that Safadi’s candidacy is viewed with qualms. Snubbing the proposal, three former prime ministers -- Tammam Salam, Najib Mikati and Fouad Siniora -- issued a joint statement on Friday, saying that given the current situation, they had insisted on reappointing Hariri and called on political parties to support his nomination instead. Safadi was a minister under both Mikati and Siniora.

Four weeks in, the uprising in Lebanon has grown into one of the most serious challenges yet to the sectarian power-sharing system that emerged from the ashes of its 1975-1990 civil war. The apparent inability of senior officials to respond to popular demands has further shaken confidence in the economy and seen the currency tumble on the black market.

Breaking the Stalemate?

A former lawmaker, Safadi hails from predominantly Sunni Tripoli, a northern city that has some of the highest rates of poverty in Lebanon and has witnessed some of the biggest protests. As well as holding the finance portfolio, Safadi has served as minister of public works, transport and economy.

Lebanon’s political system dictates that the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Christian and the speaker a Shiite, while parliament seats are divided among different religious sects.

Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who has also been a target of protests, said Safadi agreed to head the new government if he gets the approval of the parliamentary blocs.

In comments to MTV Lebanon, Bassil said consultations could take place Monday and Safadi will be named at the end “or else we will be in this stalemate as we wait for an agreement on a new prime minister.”

Hariri, Hezbollah

Local media reported that Hariri, President Michel Aoun as well as the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and allies all agreed to name Safadi to head the next cabinet. Aoun has yet to set a date for parliamentary consultations to name a new premier.

Hariri’s Future parliamentary bloc would accept Safadi but is also open to other options, said a prominent member, Hadi Hobeish. Safadi’s wife, Violette, is a minister in Hariri’s caretaker cabinet.

Safadi, 75, wouldn’t comment on his possible designation and will wait for consultations to officially name him, a person at his office said.

Almost immediately after reports trickled out of Safadi’s candidacy, a video was circulated online summarizing his role in a controversial Saudi arms deal and construction along the coast that’s been at the center of protests against the illegal privatization of public property. On Twitter, commentators denounced him as part of the political class protesters want to push out.

Earlier this month, Safadi denied allegations that he benefited from his status to buy property from the government at an undervalued price and build a posh promenade lined with restaurants and shops in the center of the capital, Beirut. In a statement, Safadi also said the project doesn’t infringe on public space.

Challenges Abound

If confirmed, Safadi will face formidable challenges, not just from the street. Lebanon is confronting its most serious economic crisis in decades. Banks are closed, trade is stymied by a shortage of hard currency and the pound has depreciated on the black market as concerns rise that the country is heading toward a debt crisis.

Yet political squabbling has stalled economic reform plans required to win back investor confidence and unlock some $11 billion in international aid pledged at a donor conference last year.

(Updates with statement by three ex-premiers in fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Lin Noueihed in Beirut at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net;Dana Khraiche in Beirut at dkhraiche@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lin Noueihed at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net, Paul Abelsky, Mark Williams

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