Hezbollah-backed professor to form new government in Lebanon

Lebanon's president has asked former education minister Hassan Diab to form a new government and break a political impasse amid mass protests in the deeply divided country

BEIRUT -- A former education minister backed by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies was selected Thursday as Lebanon’s new prime minister to break a political impasse amid mass protests, although he almost immediately ran into opposition from demonstrators on the streets.

Hassan Diab, a professor at the American University of Beirut, was named by President Michel Aoun after a day of consultations with lawmakers in which he gained a simple majority in the 128-member parliament. He won support from 69 lawmakers, including the parliamentary bloc of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements, as well as lawmakers affiliated with Aoun.

But Diab failed to get the support of Lebanon's major Sunni leaders, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. That is key because under the country’s sectarian-based system, the premier must come from the Sunni community.

That also will make it difficult for him to form an inclusive Cabinet able to gain the international community's trust and unlock badly needed assistance for the tiny Mediterranean country that is facing its worst economic and financial crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

Friendly nations, including France, have made clear they will not support the heavily indebted nation before a reform-minded Cabinet is formed.

Demonstrators called the 60-year-old Diab part of the old ruling class that they oppose and continued their protests.

In his first public address, Diab said he would work quickly to form a government in consultations with political parties and representatives of the protest movement. He said he is committed to a reform plan and described the current situation as “critical and sensitive,” requiring exceptional efforts and collaboration.

“We are facing a national crisis that doesn't allow for the luxury of personal and political battles but needs national unity,” Diab said. He told the protesters he hears their “pain."

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale was traveling to Beirut, the most senior foreign diplomat to visit the country since the crisis. U.S. diplomats have said they support the quick formation of a government that can bring about reform.

Support from Iran-backed Hezbollah guarantees Diab a thorny path, potentially inviting criticism from Western and Gulf nations that had supported Hariri. The Shiite group is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., some Gulf Arab countries and a few Latin American nations. The European Union considers only Hezbollah’s military wing to be a terrorist group.

Maha Yahya, director of Carnegie Middle East, a Beirut-based think tank, said Diab arrives with no support from his community and no consensus at a time when Lebanon is facing an economic meltdown and needs international assistance.

"The problem is he is coming on as a weakened prime minister, " she said.

Following Diab's appointment, protesters gathered in central Beirut's Martyrs' Square, the epicenter of the protests. They cast him as part of the class of politicians they oppose. Supporters of Hariri also began taking to the streets.

“I see the country is going to waste. With this kind of government, no one will deal with it, no Arab, no Europe and No U.S.,” said Saeb Hujrat, a protester in Martyr Square. He held a large banner reading: “We want a government outside of the ruling class."

For two months, the leaderless protests have been calling for a government made up of specialists that can work on dealing with the economic crisis. The protests have recently turned violent, with frequent clashes between security forces and protesters.

Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal also have attacked the protest camp site in Beirut several times. The most recent one came last weekend when they set cars on fire and threw stones and firecrackers at security forces for hours.

Diab gained attention after caretaker premier Hariri withdrew his name from consideration following weeks of haggling and deep divisions among the various factions over naming him again. Hariri resigned Oct. 29 in response to the unprecedented mass protests and as an already-dire economic crisis deteriorated quickly.

Hariri had insisted he would head a Cabinet made up of specialists to deal with the crisis. Hezbollah, which initially backed him, demanded a government including all major political factions.

Diab served as minister of education from 2011-14, when Hezbollah and its allies overturned a Cabinet headed by Hariri at the time.

Diab was in the U.K. when Lebanon's civil war broke out. There, he received undergraduate and graduate degrees in communications and computer engineering from the universities of Leeds Metropolitan, Surrey and Bath.