Lebanon gets new prime minister amid economic meltdown

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati gestures as he speaks to the press after meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon September 10, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, became the prime minister of Lebanon on Friday, seizing the reins in a country that has been without a government for more than a year while its people careened deeper into an economic abyss.

President Michel Aoun announced the formation of Mikati’s Cabinet on his official Twitter feed, saying he and Mikati signed to make it official in the presence of the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri.

Mikati and his ministers will face tremendous challenges.

Lebanon, a small, turbulent Mediterranean country, is suffering through an economic collapse that the World Bank has said could rank among the three worst in the world since the mid-1800s. Since fall 2019, the national currency has lost more than 90% of its value against the dollar, unemployment has spread, businesses have closed and prices have skyrocketed.

Grave fuel shortages in recent months have left all but the wealthiest Lebanese struggling with extensive electricity cuts and long lines at gas stations. The country’s once celebrated banking, medical and education sectors have all taken huge hits, as professionals have fled for better-paid jobs abroad because of collapsing salaries.

The country has been without a fully empowered government since August 2020, when Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his Cabinet resigned after a huge explosion in the Beirut port that caused extensive damage to the Lebanese capital and killed more than 200 people.

Two other designates gave up after failing to form governments in Lebanon’s complex system of sectarian power-sharing, and it took Mikati more than six weeks to succeed, an effort that included more than a dozen meetings with Aoun.

Lebanon has sought aid from the International Monetary Fund, the United States, France and other countries, but most promises of assistance have been contingent on the formation of a government and on the implementing of measures aimed at increasing transparency in a country where systematic corruption is a perennial problem.

It was not clear what immediate steps Mikati would take to stem a crisis whose causes have been accumulating for many years, but he has said he would work toward implementing a framework presented by France and engage with the International Monetary Fund.

Mikati, 65, has been a well-known figure in Lebanese business and politics for decades. A company he co-founded with his brother has international investments in telecommunications, real estate and other sectors, contributing to his net worth of $2.8 billion, according to Forbes.

A Sunni Muslim from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, he served two previous terms as prime minister, most recently from June 2011 to May 2013. He has also held various Cabinet portfolios and is a member of Lebanon’s parliament.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.