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Fresh blow to Lebanon's struggling government as foreign minister quits

Nassif Hitti says Diab's cabinet not serving the interests of the country, with speculation his exit may be linked to tumultuous visit of France's Le Drian
Nassif Hitti speaks during a news conference with French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Beirut on 23 June (Reuters)
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Lebanon’s flailing government was dealt a fresh blow on Monday as its foreign minister, Nassif Hitti, resigned in protest at its performance.

He has been replaced by Charbel Wehbe, who has been serving as the president's diplomatic adviser.

“I had high hopes for change and reform, but reality aborted the foetus of hope,” Hitti said in a written resignation statement distributed to local media. “Today, God forbid, Lebanon is turning into a failed state.”

Lebanon is in the midst of an economic crisis, with its currency losing 80 percent of its value and food prices doubling.

The government, a self-proclaimed technocratic cabinet assembled in January to tackle the country’s myriad issues, has struggled to make an impact. Ostensibly supposed to be a departure from previous governments made up of Lebanon's corrupt political class, the hand of the old sectarian parties is still seen by many as influencing the cabinet.

Hitti alleged that there were conflicting interests in the government being placed above the wellbeing of the country at large.

'I had high hopes for change and reform, but reality aborted the foetus of hope. Today, God forbid, Lebanon is turning into a failed state'

- Nassif Hitti, foreign minister

“I participated in this government on the basis of working for a single employer called Lebanon, but I found many employers and conflicting interests in my country,” he said in his statement.

“If they do not meet in the interest of rescuing the Lebanese people, then, God forbid, the boat will sink with everyone on it.”

The resignation is another indicator of how "ineffective" the Diab government is at tackling the country's spiralling economic crisis, Carnegie Middle East Center Director Maha Yahya told Middle East Eye.

"Their current policy of trying to kick the can down the road is pushing Lebanon further into the abyss," said Yahya.

"The conundrum for the political leadership is that they are unable to concede any losses nor agree on who and what they would replace this current government with."

Appointed with the backing of President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Hitti submitted his resignation to Prime Minister Hassan Diab at the government palace in Beirut and left without speaking to the press. In a statement, Diab's office said he immediately accepted the resignation, adding that the premier "initiated calls and studied options to appoint a new minister".

However, Public Works and Transportation Minister Michel Najjar stated that he had tried to convince Hitti to reconsider his intent to resign.

Observers have speculated that more ministers may follow, but anti-government and opposition groups approached the resignation with caution.

Adham Hassanieh, of grassroots political movement Li Haqqi, described Hitti's resignation as "very expected", adding that not much ought to be expected unless several ministers follow suit and resign as well.

"[The resignation] also confirms that this government has no sovereign authority and that the influence of the establishment is still there," the Li Haqqi activist told MEE, adding that this has happened in tandem to the "catastrophic performance" of Diab.

"From day one the role of this government was to perform a puppet show, so [the] establishment in the background can have enough time and less exposure to manage a soft-landing after the bankruptcy."

News of Hitti's resignation surfaced last night after he had notified several authority figures of his intentions, which, according to local media, immediately opened lines of communications for his successor.

It appears that, for now, Environment and Administrative Development Minister Damianos Kattar will assume Hitti’s duties.

Aoun and Diab are set to discuss Hitti’s replacement in a closed-door meeting at the Baabda Presidential Palace “away from the media”.

A new blow

Following a month of setbacks for cash-strapped Lebanon, the foreign minister’s resignation is a new blow. Lacklustre negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout were put on hold, following internal squabbles over the cabinet’s rescue plan between Diab, the banks and political leadership.

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The IMF’s intransigence has also been cited as a reason why monetary relief has been delayed.

Lebanon is also facing rising unemployment, with Minister of the Economy Raoul Nehme recently projecting that some 60 percent of the population could live below the poverty line by the end of the year.

The price of food and other primary household items continue to spike. The situation is so dire that the prime minister himself had pleaded for international assistance in a Washington Post column.

On top of all that, a new partial lockdown was imposed following a surge of Covid-19 cases.

However, local media has also speculated that a recent diplomatic faux pas with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian may have been the last straw.

Hitti’s French counterpart had urged the Lebanese authorities during a recent visit to Beirut to implement structural reforms he said were necessary for international aid and an economic bailout. “Help us to help you,” Le Drian had said after meeting Lebanese leaders.

State media quoted Diab saying in a cabinet session that the French “did not carry anything new” in their visit, while also being misinformed about reforms being taken by his government.

The prime minister’s criticism of Le Drian and French diplomats was met with scathing condemnation from former prime minister Saad Hariri, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and other political rivals close to the French government.

Originally from the northern city of Tripoli, 67-year-old Hitti, an academic and diplomat by trade, made his Lebanese political debut in his recent tenure as foreign minister.

Much of Hitti’s diplomatic career was spent with the Arab League between 1985 and 2015, serving as ambassador to France and Italy and at Unesco, as spokesperson and adviser to the secretary-general.

His replacement, Wehbe, was reportedly Aoun and FPM head Gebran Bassil's top choice for foreign minister in January, though his appointment was vehemently opposed by Diab.

Diab left consultations with Aoun on Monday without making a statement on Wehbe's appointment.