By Tom Perry and Eric Knecht
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Saad al-Hariri said on Tuesday he did not want to be prime minister of a new government, putting the onus on adversaries including the Iran-backed group Hezbollah to find an alternative who can steer the country out of crisis.
Hariri, who is Lebanon’s leading Sunni Muslim politician and is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, said his decision was final. He quit on Oct. 29 in the face of nationwide protests against Lebanon’s ruling elite over rampant state corruption.
His decision leaves no clear frontrunner to form a government that must tackle the worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war. The post is reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.
Five weeks since the protests began, the situation facing Lebanon is as grave as any since the end of the civil war, raising concerns for the stability of a heavily indebted state riven by sectarianism.
Hezbollah and its allies had wanted Hariri to return as premier but rejected his demand for the formation of a cabinet of expert ministers with no political parties represented. Instead, they sought a government comprising both technocrats and politicians.
“I am sticking by the rule ‘not me, rather someone else’ to form a government that addresses the aspirations of the young men and women,” Hariri said in a written statement.
“I have full hope and confidence, after announcing this clear and decisive decision, that the president of the republic … will immediately call the binding parliamentary consultations” to designate a new prime minister, he said.
A prominent contractor mooted by political sources as a candidate, Samir Khatib, told Lebanese broadcaster MTV he was ready to take on the job if there was consensus on him.
A statement from Hariri’s office denied that names it said were circulating on social media had been proposed by him and said he his choice would be determined when the formal process of designating the prime minister begins.
President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian allied to Hezbollah, must now hold official consultations with members of parliament to designate a new prime minister. The candidate with the greatest support will be nominated.
A ministerial source close to Aoun said the next government would not be of “one colour” and efforts would be made with Hariri to agree on the next prime minister.
Aoun’s consultations with lawmakers are expected to be held on Thursday or Friday, the source said.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a political ally of Hariri, said Hariri had taken the decision after attempts to impose “unacceptable conditions” on him.
“He decided to leave the way for somebody else, which is good,” Jumblatt told Reuters.
“The prime minister did his best to have an acceptable technocratic government, to find a compromise. It was rejected, so he decided to quit. Let’s hope that the new one can succeed and basically concentrate on the economic crisis,” he said.
The long-brewing economic crisis, which is rooted in state corruption and waste, has been exacerbated by a shortage of hard currency that has led the pegged Lebanese pound to weaken sharply on the black market.
The pound slid further on Tuesday with five foreign exchange dealers offering dollars at rates of between 2,100 and 2,130 pounds, or 41% weaker than the official rate of 1,507.5 pounds.
(Reporting by Tom Perry and Eric Knecht; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Gareth Jones)