BEIRUT – Lebanon's caretaker prime minister said Wednesday he's no longer a candidate for the post, eliminating himself from consideration with no clear alternative on the eve of scheduled consultations between the president and parliamentary blocs for naming a new premier.
The move by Saad Hariri comes amid much uncertainty and heightened tensions following recent violence. There were several days of confrontations involving security forces and anti-government protesters as well as supporters of Lebanon's two main Shiite groups, Hezbollah and Amal. They torched cars, smashed window shops and burned trees in central Beirut. Police have responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The violence threatened to plunge Lebanon further into chaos and ignite sectarian strife amid two months of anti-government protests and a spiraling financial crisis. Politicians meanwhile, have been unable to agree on a new government since Hariri resigned Oct. 29 in response to unprecedented, nationwide protests. Those demonstrations weresparked by a tanking economy and united the Lebanese against their leaders.
The western-backed Hariri has insisted on a government of specialists to deal with the economic and financial crisis, while others including Hezbollah demand a government that includes all major political parties — much like Hariri's unity government that was brought down.
“It has become clear to me that, despite my categorical commitment to forming a government of specialists, the positions ... are not changing, I therefore announce that I will not be a candidate to form the next government,” Hariri said in a statement Wednesday.
Hariri had been widely expected to be named prime minister this week, but he failed to win the backing of the country's largest Christian groups and requested the consultations be delayed to allow for more talks. Under Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system, the position of PM is reserved for a Sunni Muslim. Hariri's exit leaves no obvious alternative that all the parties can agree on.
Hariri said he will take part in Monday's consultations but did not say who he will nominate. The statement said his bloc in parliament will meet Thursday morning, ahead of the scheduled consultations with President Michel Aoun, to determine who it will name as their candidate for PM.
A mob attacked the office of a Sunni Muslim religious leader in the northern city of Tripoli, smashing in windows early Wednesday, Lebanon's official news agency and the military said. The assailants then moved to one of the city's main squares and set fire to the traditional Christmas tree.
The violence indicated that tensions that have recently gripped the Lebanese capital, Beirut, fueled by an online video deemed offensive to the country's Shiite Muslims, are spreading to Tripoli, the country's second-largest city. The city is predominantly Sunni.
The military said a mob of men on motorcycles gathered outside the home of Sunni Mufti Sheik Malek al-Shaar and rioted, “used profanity” and smashed property. The mob then moved to the square and threw fire bombs at the Christmas tree, setting it on fire. The military said it arrested four men and confiscated their motorcycles.
On Tuesday, anger boiled over in Beirut after the offensive video was widely circulated online. It showed a Sunni resident of Tripoli railing against the leaders of the country's two main Shiite groups, Hezbollah and Amal, and religious Shiite figures and using expletives. Their supporters descended on a protest camp in Beirut as security forces intervened to push them back, setting off hours of pitched street battles.
Angry assailants also attacked protest camps in the northern district Hermel and in the southern Sidon and Nabatiyeh on Tuesday.
Supporters of the militant Hezbollah group and its close ally, the Amal movement, have been intolerant of the protesters' criticism of their leaders and have tried for days, even before the video emerged, to attack the protest camps.
The anti-government protests, which erupted in mid-October, have spared no Lebanese politician, accusing the ruling elite of corruption and mismanagement, and calling for a government of independents. They have largely been peaceful, sparked by an intensifying economic crisis.
Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, and Hariri met Tuesday and urged the Lebanese not to be “drawn toward strife," adding that some parties they didn't name are working to incite violence in the country.