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Lebanon factions form government, ending nine-month deadlock

By SARAH EL DEEBJanuary 31, 2019
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Newly-assigned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, speaks to journalists at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Lebanese political factions have agreed on the formation of a new government, breaking a nine-month deadlock that only deepened the country' economic woes. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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Newly-assigned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, speaks to journalists at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Lebanese political factions have agreed on the formation of a new government, breaking a nine-month deadlock that only deepened the country' economic woes. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese political factions agreed Thursday to form a new government, breaking a nine-month deadlock that only deepened the country’ economic woes.

Rival political groups had been locked in disagreement over the make-up of a new government since May, after the country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years.

Lebanon’s powerful Shiite group Hezbollah made significant gains at the expense of the largest Sunni party, headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, further contributing to traditional horse trading among rival factions to form governments in Lebanon.

A breakthrough became possible after weeks of backroom deals as economic pressures mounted. The rival factions worked out a compromise allowing representation of Sunni lawmakers backed by Hezbollah, increasing the group’s allies in the government.

The new government will be headed by Hariri, the Western-backed Sunni politician who has held the job since 2016. The post always goes to a Sunni politician under the country’s political system.

The announcement was expected to ease anxiety over Lebanon’s sinking economic credentials after international agencies downgraded the country’s credit ratings over concerns about the government’s ability to pay its massive debt.

Celebrations broke out after the announcement, including huge fireworks that lit up the Beirut sky, and rallies in support of Hariri.

Hariri called the new government “a reflection of Lebanon’s image in 2019.”

The 30-seat government sees an increase in the number of ministries affiliated with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which is under tightening sanctions from the United States that labels the group a terrorist organization.

For the first time, the group now holds the Ministry of Health, which has one of the country’s largest budgets. Hariri had warned against Hezbollah holding the Health Ministry fearing it would be hit with sanctions too.

The new health minister, Jamil Jabbak, is not a member of Hezbollah but is believed to be close to the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and was his personal physician at one point.

The Finance Ministry remained in the hands of a Hezbollah ally, Ali Hassan Khalil.

For the first time, the Lebanese government includes four women ministers, doubling their representation. They include Raya al-Hassan, who was named to the powerful Ministry of Interior in charge of internal security. Al-Hassan, a member of Hariri’s party, was a former Cabinet minister.

Hariri’s party also named Violette Safadi to be state minister for women’s affairs, a post previously held by a man.

May Chidiac, who lost her arm and leg in an assassination attempt in a 2005 bombing, was named state minister for administrative development by the Christian Lebanese Forces group. Another woman, Nada Bustani, was named by the president’s political faction to hold the strategic post of energy minister.

Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the Lebanese president, remains foreign minister. But Lebanon loses its human rights ministry.

The main pressure appeared to be Lebanon’s deepening economic woes and Hariri told reporters the economy will be priority.

“There isn’t any more time to waste,” he said. “We owe the Lebanese an apology for the delay, especially to the young men and women waiting for a glimmer of hope to fix conditions.”

Hariri dodged a question about a contentious issue: relations with Syria. Lebanese factions have been divided over the war in neighboring Syria. Hezbollah has thrown its weight behind the Syrian government in the civil war that broke out in 2011, while Hariri and his political allies were critical, supporting at times the opposition.

The country is dealing with soaring public debt of $84 billion, or 155 percent of the gross domestic product, and unemployment believed to be around 36 percent. Lebanon’s infrastructure is also reeling under the weight of a growing number of Syrian refugees: more than 1 million in a country of just over 4 million.

The government is expected to enact reforms that would allow it to unlock around $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged by international donors at a conference in Paris last year.

Labor unions and government employees have held limited strikes, and protests have picked up in recent weeks, complaining of the politicians’ delay in forming a government and approving a budget as the economy suffered.

In keeping with a favorite practice, Hariri posed for a selfie with reporters and staff in the presidential palace after he spoke.

The first meeting for the new Cabinet will be Saturday, Lebanese media reported.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.

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