By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri is ready to return as prime minister of a new government, a senior official familiar with his thinking said, on condition it includes technocrats and be capable of quickly implementing reforms needed to stave off economic collapse.
Hariri’s resignation on Tuesday has left Lebanon with a political vacuum at a moment of acute crisis with reforms urgently needed to ward off even deeper financial problems in one of the world’s most heavily indebted states.
The crisis has weighed on Lebanese sovereign debt prices and compounded pressure on the pegged Lebanese pound, which has been weakening on a parallel market below the official rate of 1,507.5 pounds. Prices cited in the black market for U.S. dollars varied from 1,750 pounds to 1,850 on Wednesday.
Hariri resigned after nearly two weeks of massive protests against the political elite, accused by demonstrators of overseeing rampant state corruption, saying he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve the crisis.
The senior official, who declined to be identified, said any new cabinet led by Hariri should be devoid of a group of top-tier politicians who were in the outgoing coalition government, without naming them.
The outgoing cabinet comprised top representatives of most of Lebanon’s sectarian parties, among them foreign minister Gebran Bassil of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement who has been a prominent target of protesters.
Bassil is a political ally of the powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which had opposed the government’s resignation and has yet to comment on the resignation of Hariri, a long-time opponent of the group.
Main roads in Lebanon reopened on Wednesday as security forces sought to restore the semblance of normality.
But banks remained closed for a 11th working day.
There was no word yet on when they might reopen even as traffic began moving along major traffic arteries that had been blocked for days by demonstrators whose demands included the cabinet’s resignation.
President Michel Aoun formally asked Hariri on Wednesday to continue in a caretaker role until a new cabinet is formed, as required by Lebanon’s system of government.
There is no obvious alternative to Hariri to fill the post of prime minister, which is reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.
Hariri, Lebanon’s leading Sunni politician, is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab support to Lebanon, which is in dire need of external financial support to revive its economy and boost its foreign exchange reserves.
The banks have publicly cited security concerns as the reason for the closure. Bankers and analysts have also cited concern about a rush by savers to withdraw their savings or transfer them abroad once the banks reopen.
Early on Wednesday, troops cleared one major route north of Beirut after briefly scuffling with demonstrators. A group of soldiers tried to pick up a vehicle blocking the highway before it drove off, al-Jadeed television images showed.
The Ring Bridge in the centre of the capital opened after negotiations with some protesters who did not want to leave, saying they wanted more of the authorities to resign. Many protesters stayed on, but did not block the whole road.
In a statement, the army command said people had a right to protest, but that applied “in public squares only”.
The main protest camp in a square in the centre of the capital was quiet but was closed to traffic by security forces.
Hariri made his resignation speech on Tuesday after a crowd loyal to Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a camp in central Beirut.
The strife was the most serious on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies at the time.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the formation of a new government responsive to the needs of the Lebanese people.
“The Lebanese people want an efficient and effective government, economic reform, and an end to endemic corruption,” he said.
(Reporting by Issam Abdallah and Tom Perry; Writing by Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Andrew Heavens, William Maclean)